New statewide restrictions will soon ban off-highway vehicles (OHVs) from leaving established roads and trails, according to Payson Ranger District officials.
"We're pretty close right now to a forest amendment that will restrict OHVs from going off road," Payson Ranger District official Walt Thole said. "We might actually have a signed decision this month to implement no cross country travel on the six national forests in Arizona."
Ed Armenta, district ranger for the Payson Ranger District, expects the new restrictions to be in place no later than the beginning of the summer. Besides the Tonto, the state's other national forests are the Apache-Sitgreaves, Coconino, Coronado, Kaibab and Prescott.
"The objective is to make all our policies the same across the state," Armenta said. "That was the draft we put out several months ago, and they're finalizing it. The record of decision should be out in the next couple of weeks."
OHVs are already restricted to established roads and trails in parts of the Tonto National Forest.
"The Tonto already has that policy in the southern districts, but Payson and Pleasant Valley do not," Armenta said. "When our land management plan was written in the early '90s, ATVs and OHVs weren't an issue really, and it wasn't a big deal at that time. Now we've got so many ATVs and 4-wheel drives out there it's become an issue."
During the past 10 years, OHV use has increased dramatically. Between 1990 and 1998, the number of registered ATVs and motorcycles increased 92 percent.
Other agencies are enthusiastic about the new policy.
"We really support the forests' effort to bring all the forests under one regulation as far as off-highway vehicle use, because right now different forests have different regulations, and even within forests sometimes different ranger districts have different regulations," Game and Fish field supervisor Craig McMullen said. "It will really help all of the agencies to get the word out in a consistent manner about where people can and can't go."
Armenta plans to launch an aggressive public information campaign to introduce the new regulations:
"I think what we're going to do is start out from the educational aspect, try to make contact with the public through signing, flyers, personal contact, newspaper articles, and let them know, hey, this is where we're at now. You cannot cross that beautiful meadow that you used to be able to, but you can and we encourage the use of roads and trails."
Armenta emphasized that the Forest Service is not opposed to OHVs.
"There always seems to be this misunderstanding that we're trying to eliminate that use and that's totally incorrect," he said. "We recognize it as a legitimate use and we want to continue to see that use out there, but in a managed, more ecologically friendly way."
While he's enthusiastic about the new regulations, he believes some of the biggest challenges still lie ahead.
"I've been looking forward to this for a long time, but now the real work takes place," he said. "We're going to have to sit down with some folks, get the maps out, and start talking about routes and sensitive areas."
A series of public meetings on the proposed changes were held around the state, including three in Payson. Public comment has been encouraged throughout the process.