A controversial new law that would hit people who own off-road vehicles with a $25 fee has generated debate for three years, but now appears to be gaining acceptance in the Rim Country.
The Off-Highway Vehicle Bill (SB 1167) has passed the Arizona house and senate and now awaits the signature of Gov. Janet Napolitano. If signed, it would take effect in 2009.
The money from the fees would hire law enforcement officers to enforce rules that would restrict OHV use to certain trails and roads, develop new trails, maintain existing trails and restore damaged landscapes.
Initially skeptical, local off roaders have now come to support the proposed fee.
Sean Kucewesky, owner of Rim Country Power Sports in Star Valley, said "It would be beneficial and could do things like trail development and maintenance. Very few people I've come across are now against it."
If signed into law, off road vehicle users would pay a $20 to $25 user fee. Arizona Game and Fish officials sum up the new law by saying its "user pay, user play."
The new state restrictions on OHV users would take effect in the shadow of a much larger potential change on federal lands.
The U.S. Forest Service is now in the process of reviewing all of the roads and trails in the forest, with an eye toward restrictions that would ban-cross country driving and shut perhaps half of the existing trails. The federal government ordered that review after finding an explosion of off road use was causing massive problems, including erosion, scaring and wildlife impacts. Those proposed closures on Forest Service land would still leave thousands of miles of roads and trails open on Rim Country forests
The state restrictions are likely to take effect well before the Forest Service finishes its review process.
The new state fees would mean OHV owners who use national forests and state trust lands must foot the bill to help soften the impact of those vehicles on public lands.
The money collected from those fees would be used for trail maintenance and reconstruction, rider education and information, law enforcement and restoring damaged areas.
The proposed law has drawn both bipartisan support in the house and senate and the backing of a wide variety of groups, including the Arizona Wildlife Federation, National Rifle Association, Show Low Motor Sports, Arizona Power Sports Association, White Mountain Conservation League and the Town of Buckeye.
But critics remain.
Sen. Ron Gould, R-Lake Havasu City, said he couldn't support the bill because he's not sure the government agencies that receive the fees would spend the money as intended.
Charlie Thompson, a local outdoorsman and long-time member of the Tonto Rim Sports Club, echoes Gould's comments.
"Right now, I'm against it (the proposed law)," he said.
"But if there was some way to guarantee the money would be spent as it's supposed to be, I would support it."
Some have argued that most of the fees would not be spent on trails maintenance and habitat restoration as most OHV owners hope.
The proposed law dictates part of the fees go to an off-road vehicle fund and another portion to the highway user revenue fund.
It authorizes state game and fish officials to spend a portion on information and education programs and hire seven full-time law enforcement officers.
Other portions of the fee go to state parks.
The bill sets a cap on how much can be used for new trail construction. Some dollars are also dedicated to mitigating damage to the land.
The proposed law would restrict people from driving OHVs off an existing road in a manner that causes damage and from driving on trails or routes that have been closed.
That has long been a point of contention in the Rim Country where many OHV owners use their vehicles to access hard to reach places and to retrieve downed big game.
"I think all the old trails should be grandfathered in and they should remain open," said Ty Goodman, owner and operator of Goodman Outfitters. "I'm not for those who go out and tear up the woods and go crazy, but we need to keep our trails open for the responsible people."
Rep. Jerry Weiers, R-Glendale, introduced the bill after having a similar proposal fail last year by one vote in the senate.
Among those applauding the passage of the bill in the house and senate is Arizona Game and Fish Commission chairman Bill McLean.
"We've worked hard on this bill with sponsor Jerry Weiers and supporters, we're looking forward to its implementation," he said.