Off-roaders will have to more or less stick to the 2,700 miles of existing network of open, designated roads under the Apache Sitgreaves National Forest's latest plan.
Responding to an explosion of cross-country travel driven by quads and other related types of vehicles, the federal government ordered the nation's forests to come up with a plan to restrict cross-country travel -- which has resulted in big increases in erosion, hillside damage and wildlife impacts in many forests.
All the nation's forests have been staggering through a mammoth planning process, that first required an inventory of thousands of miles of existing roads and trails and then some attempt to figure out which ones should remain open.
The repeatedly delayed process has spurred thousands of comments from off-roaders, hikers, campers, environmentalists and others prompting the Forest Service to repeatedly extend public comment periods and to keep issuing new maps attempting to detail the alternatives.
After all of the furor and study, the Apache Sitgreaves latest plan would leave open almost all the current forest roads while barring almost all off-road travel -- except for licensed hunters using a quad or a Jeep to retrieve the body of a deer or elk. Subsequent stories will look at the plans in the Tonto and Coconino forests.
The plan probably won't take effect for another 18 months, assuming that another round of comments to the latest proposal doesn't force another postponement.
"This has been a huge undertaking," said Apache Sitgreaves spokesman Robert Dyson of the effort to inventory 6,000 miles of roads and trails on the 3,500 square miles of forests -- stretching from the edge of the Mogollon Rim east of Highway 260 virtually to the New Mexico border -- and encompassing most of the White Mountains.
Currently, the Forest Service has mapped about 6,000 miles of roads, most of them old logging and mining roads already closed to vehicles.
However, since current forest rules allow cross-country travel -- someone on a quad or in a Jeep can't drive legally drive on some 3,000 miles of identified but closed roads, but could drive through the forest right alongside that road.
"Right now, people are driving right around the road signs and barriers and driving through the forest parallel to the road," said Dyson, shaking his head.
The cross-country travel does even more environmental damage than driving on the rutted, eroding, already closed roads.
As a result, the new rules won't have much impact on people who use four-wheel drive vehicles and quads on any of the nearly 3,000 miles of currently opened roads and trails -- but will have a big impact on people used to taking off cross country.
Apache Sitgreaves has also included an unusual exception to the ban on cross-country travel for hunters. Currently, many hunters use quads or other vehicles to retrieve their kill. The new rules on the Apache Sitgreaves will allow a hunter with a tag for a given area to drive cross country to pick up the meat and hide of their prey.
Dyson said the road restrictions should also leave most areas of the 2.2-million-acre forest easily accessible for hikers and campers. One analysis found that almost the entire forest will remain within one mile of an open, designated road. Moreover, the plan has identified 1,600 dispersed campsites, close by an open road. In addition, the plan designates nearly 1,000 miles of designated road where people can camp anywhere within 300 feet of that road. People can still camp elsewhere in the forest, but the designations are intended to ensure people still have ample dispersed campsites easily accessible on an open road.
The effort to curtail cross-country travel has provoked fierce debate and thousands of comments.
Many environmentalists hailed the ban on cross-country travel, but insisted that proposed plan will still leave open thousands of miles of roads that will endanger archeological sites, spur continued erosion and disturb wildlife. Since the nearly 3,000 miles of open roads put every corner of the forest within a mile of a roadway, wildlife will continue to be affected throughout the forest. Moreover, erosion from existing roads has had a major impact on plants and streams, according to various studies.
People protesting rules that will restrict their off-road use have been especially vociferous in their comments.
The problem in the Rim Country is compounded by restrictions on dirt road travel in Maricopa County intended to reduce air pollution. Virtually all of Maricopa County has been closed to cross-country off-road vehicle use and many dirt roads and trails have been closed. As a result, many off-roaders are heading down the highway for places like the Rim Country to pursue their favorite recreational activity.
The Forest Service staff was so overwhelmed by the thousands of often-angry comments that they hired a private contractor to compile and summarize the comments. The report by that contractor, along with maps and a mass of additional information about the so-called Travel Management Plan, are posted on the forest's Web site at http://www.fs.fed.us/r3/asnf/projects/travel-management.shtml.
In the end, said Dyson "it's almost no change from the status quo" except for the ban on cross-country travel.
"Basically, on all the major roads -- there's no thought at all on closing them. Only the most primitive roads and trails might be affected -- but when it comes to getting to a campground or a lake -- no question they'll remain open."