Tonto National Forest has taken its controversial road show on the road.
Next stop: Payson on Wednesday.
Already, the plan to ban cross-country driving by off-roaders and close 280 miles of existing roads, while opening nearly 800 miles of currently closed roads and designate 2,600 acres for continued cross-country travel has spurred controversy.
Some 200 people crowded into a meeting on the travel management plan in Tonto Basin last week, voicing views “from A to Z,” said Delvin Lopez, group leader for recreation and lands in the Tonto National Forest.
On one side, some off-roaders decry the restrictions.
On the other side, environmentalists and forest advocates say the forest will continue to suffer grave environmental damage if the Tonto National Forest leaves open thousand of acres of dirt roads and allows free-wheeling use of several proposed “ORV Areas.”
Rim Country residents will get a chance from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, Nov. 18 at Julia Randall Elementary School to weigh in on Tonto National Forest’s proposed off-road ban on several million acres and the closure of some 280 miles of existing roads. The plan would reportedly protect streams, wildlife and archaeological sites. However, it would leave open or re-open nearly 800 miles of roads closed to protect wildlife back in 1990.
“We’ve had some good discussions,” said Lopez of the comments made during four previous open sessions. “What we’re asking the general public is ‘what roads would you like to keep open, which roads would you like to close and which areas for disbursed camping would you like to see open.’”
The Forest Service will take comments on the plan through December, come up with a modified proposal by March and hopefully fully issue proposed maps in July. The forest must then undertake another round of environmental studies on the modified plan.
Some observers have already sharply criticized the current version of the plan.
“The ban on off-road travel is great,” said Cyndi Tuell of the Centers for Biological Diversity, “but it’s 30 years overdue. But I think this particular plan is a step backwards — it’s a lost opportunity.”
The Department of Agriculture ordered every national forest in the country to come up with a plan to limit the mounting environmental damage caused by an explosion in off-road vehicle use.
Tonto started work on its plan more than two years ago, but has since lagged far behind the neighboring Coconino and Apache-Sitgreaves national forests.
The Coconino National Forest issued its proposed plan in 2007 and will release its environmental impact statement in January or February. The Coconino, which runs from Flagstaff to Highway 260 atop the Rim, closed more roads and didn’t make a cross-county exception for hunters.
The Apache-Sitgreaves, which runs from Highway 260 atop the Rim all the way to Alpine, released its plan in late 2008. It will finish its environmental impact report soon. That plan includes more exceptions allowing cross-country travel for hunters and people heading for certain camping areas.
Tonto National Forest has posted maps of the proposed closures on its Web site.
Those maps show an intricate network of thousands of miles of dirt roads and trails reaching every corner of the vast national forest. Studies suggest Tonto National Forest has more off-road vehicle use than any other forest in the nation.
The proposal would leave a few areas open to cross-country travel — like the heavily used Sycamore Canyon area between Payson and Phoenix.
The plan has drawn fire from environmental groups who worry it doesn’t go far enough in preventing damage to the forest from the boom in use of Jeeps, dirt bikes and quads in recent years.
Brian Mahar, with Responsible Trails America, hailed the effort to restrict cross-country travel. He cited a study by the General Accountability Office that found widespread damage from reckless riding and growing conflicts between off-roaders and other forest users.
He said that Arizona recently took the lead by imposing a license tax on off-road vehicles to raise money for enforcement, restoration and public education.
However, recent studies show most off-road vehicle owners haven’t bought the required tags.
“One could argue that the state law is a good start in establishing a sustainable ORV management plan, but with the federal land management problems that have been raised, this plan will only work if Congress takes action to increase federal law enforcement funding,” said Mahar.
Meanwhile, forest advocates hope Tonto forest will close more roads before adopting a final plan.
“The proposed road density is definitely too high for wildlife and probably too high for the health of the watershed,” observed Tuell, who has done a preliminary analysis of the plan.
She said the Tonto National Forest watershed, which drains down the Salt and Verde rivers, providing drinking water for 3 million people.
A 2004 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists concluded that a road density greater than 2.5 miles or road for each square mile of land would cause so much erosion, silting and runoff that it would damage the watershed.
Other studies have suggested that wildlife suffers when road densities exceed one mile of road for each square mile of terrain. Roads can fragment wildlife habitat, affecting movement and foraging patterns.
Tuell said the group’s initial analysis suggests the proposed plan would leave about two miles of road for each square mile of land, enough to raise concerns about the health of the watershed and the impact on wildlife.
However, the group could not do a highly detailed analysis because forest officials haven’t yet released GIS and other key data on the plan. As a result, the Centers for Biological Diversity has already asked for an extension of the comment period at least a month beyond the release of more data.
“We’ve looked at the maps and identified some problems with the maps. The road density is definitely too great for wildlife and I would speculate it’s too high for the watershed,” concluded Tuell.
However, Lopez rejected a criticism based on mere road density.
For starters, he said about 30 percent of the 3-million-acre forest will remain either wilderness or roadless, which should count against the density calculations.
Moreover, each species reacts differently to the presence of a nearby dirt road.
“Road density has become a red herring, basically,” said Delvin.
“It depends on what the situation is for whatever species you’re looking at.”
On the other side of the debate, off-road vehicle enthusiasts have attended some of the public meetings held elsewhere to suggest the forest should open more areas to continued off-road travel and add many miles of additional existing roads and trails to the maps.
The proposed rules would ban most cross-country travel, with a few exceptions.
Hunters on their way to retrieve the body of an animal they’d killed could use a vehicle to retrieve the meat.
Lopez said the plan would open up nearly three times as many currently closed roads and motorized trails as it would close.
“The overwhelming majority of roads will remain open,” he said.
In addition, the plan would leave open a few areas like Sycamore Creek on the outskirts of Phoenix and an area near Carefree.
Users would likely have to get a permit to enter those areas, which on the preliminary maps total some 2,600 acres. In the Payson Ranger District, one such open zone goes right up a streambed, said Tuell.
The 90-minute session in Payson Wednesday will give both sides a chance to air their complaints.
The schedule calls for the forest to close the public comment period on Dec. 4.
Estimates show that the 3-million-acre Tonto National Forest has more off-road vehicle users than any other forest in the nation — a total of 529,000 user days last year.
Nationally, the number of off-road vehicle users has jumped seven-fold since 1972 — from about 5 million to about 36 million.
Tuell said the big flaw in Tonto’s plan lies in its inability to maintain even the existing road network. Roads that aren’t maintained not only become unsafe, but can increase erosion and siltation into vulnerable streams.
“They can’t maintain the 2,000 miles of (designated) road they have — now they’re planning to designate 4,200 miles of road. That seems irresponsible,” said Tuell.
To download and view Tonto Travel Plan map and Tonto Proposed Action Payson Road 102509 click this link: Tonto Map and Proposed Road