Open House Draws Support For Control Of Ohvs

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Better management of off-highway vehicles is a concept that seems to have overwhelming support among Rim country residents -- and around the state.

Most Rim country residents who attended the Forest Service's open house on the subject Wednesday at Rim Country Middle School were in agreement with the thinking of officials from the Tonto National Forest and four other nearby forests.

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Thom Campbell listens as Ed Armenta, head ranger for the Payson Ranger District, explains the need for stricter OHV regulation in the Tonto National Forest.

"They've had several meetings on the other forests (Apache-Sitgreaves, Coconino, Kaibab and Prescott national forests), and this meeting and the Phoenix meeting are the last meetings," Tonto OHV manager Tammy Pike said. "We have not had a negative response from anybody. All of the clubs are in full support of it. They understand that we're not talking about taking away any trails; we're talking about closing that distance between trails so that people aren't creating more trails."

During the past 10 years, OHV use has increased dramatically. Between 1990 and 1998, the number of registered ATVs and motorcycles increased 92 percent.

The Forest Service is proposing to limit motorized wheeled cross country travel on lands administered by the agency in Arizona.

One of those in attendance at the RCMS open house was Ben Hitzhusen, a horseman and a member of the Gila County Trails Alliance board of directors. He is in total agreement with the initiative.

"What they're trying to do basically is keep everybody on (the existing trails) and we're all for this because there's too much pristine land that is being overrun," Hitzhusen said. "I'd just as soon see it somewhat curtailed and everybody be considerate of everybody."

Hitzhusen said the need for control was brought home to him once again Tuesday.

"We were out south of the casino and I said, ‘Where did all these roads come from.' We almost got lost," he said.

Hank Graepler, another horseman in attendance, agreed.

"I think they ought to blow them up," Graepler said of OHVs. "They're the worst thing ever invented, for the country's sake anyway.

"They're just raping the country, and everybody in the Valley has got one. They go every place they can, and it just causes a lot of disruption among the game and tears up the vegetation."

Dave Pirtle owns an OHV, and he's a member of the Four Wheelers Club and Tonto Rim Search and Rescue. He came to the meeting with an open mind.

"I just wanted to hear what was going on here today," Pirtle said. "I don't have any problem with it at all. What they're trying to do is just manage the resources that we have and keep people from destroying the habitat."

The burden for enforcing OHV laws in this area falls to Dan Smith, local law enforcement officer.

With a massive territory to cover that runs from Payson to Pleasant Valley, nobody understands better than Smith that enforcement is just part of the equation.

"It's a totality of all the management efforts," Smith said. "It's not just enforcement, it's signage, it's education and it's the involvement of the community as well. You can't shove something down a community's throat and that's why we're having this meeting.

Smith said the forests are also looking for input from forest users.

"Hopefully people are gong to voice some opinions and voice some ideas, because that's what we're here for -- to get some ideas," he said.

One idea Smith likes came from longtime Gisela resident Margaret Wilson. She wants to see a cadre of volunteers trained and given the authority to assist with enforcement efforts in the forests.

"We accept volunteers all the time," Smith said, "and it's easy to do. You just go into the district office and sign up. It requires a little control, because you can't just have people willy nilly out there. But yeah, we love the help."

Smith admits there is no solution that's going to please everyone.

"The Tonto National Forest is 3 million acres and we've got a lot of people with very strong opinions about how we should manage every square inch of that three million acres," he said. "We're trying to balance the needs of all the different people and get some kind of consistency statewide."

The 45-day public comment period on the issue ends June 13.

The public can provide written comments via the web (www.fs.fed.us/r3/ohv) or by mailing comments to Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, Attn: Jim Anderson, Cross-country Travel Project, P.O. Box 640, 309 South Mountain Ave., Springerville, AZ 85938.

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