If you've spent any time at all in the Rim country's forests the last few years, you've seen the damage caused by off-highway vehicles. It isn't pretty.
Many existing trails have been widened to the width of single lane roads. New trails appear seemingly overnight, crisscrossing existing trails in a senseless pattern. Often a new trail simply runs parallel to an existing trail, only to rejoin it somewhere up ahead.
Entire meadows have been trashed, with giant patches of land now devoid of vegetation -- scorched by OHVs running in mindless circles. Fences have been torn down or run over. Gates are left ajar.
Of course there are responsible OHV users, people who respect the forest as much as most of us in the horse community do. In fact, most of the damage in the area where I ride seems to be caused by children, maybe 8 to 14 years old, racing ATVs through the forest completely unsupervised.
Fortunately Arizona's six national forests are about to institute some tough new restrictions banning OHVs from leaving established roads and trails. The restrictions, expected to be announced soon and implemented by summer, follow a series of public meetings held over the past year.
They represent an important first step in trying to reclaim Arizona's forests for future generations. Payson Ranger District Head Ranger Ed Armenta and the other head rangers from around the state are to be commended for implementing a set of restrictions they can all live with.
The question now is, will they work? The burden for enforcing OHV laws in this area falls to Dan Smith, local USFS law enforcement officer. With a massive territory to cover that runs from Payson to Pleasant Valley, nobody understands better than Smith that enforcement is only 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."
The Payson Ranger District and local Arizona Game and Fish officials recently forged a coalition of forest user groups to help keep the forests clean and sign trails. Groups involved so far include the Rim Country 4 Wheelers, the Payson Horseman's Association, the Gila County Trails Alliance, and Tonto Rim Search and Rescue.
It is vital that this coalition be maintained and, in fact, expanded to include other groups and organizations. And it is important that it be given a role in the enforcement process.
If we stand together, responsible forest users can overcome this menace that threatens the very reason so many of us live here.