A heaping dose of confusion. A spicy dash of confrontation. A soothing dollop of conciliation.
That about sums up the efforts of a dozen U.S. Forest Service rangers to explain to 120 off-road vehicle users and forest lovers a plan to ban most cross-country driving and to either close or open about 1,000 miles of roads and motorized trails — many of them in the Payson Ranger District.
The meeting Wednesday night at the Julia Randall Elementary School gave people a chance to puzzle over giant maps covered with red, yellow and blue lines designating road closures and openings as the Forest Service goes through a month-long public comment period on a travel management plan four years in the making.
About 1 million people a year use an estimated 4,200 miles of dirt roads and trails in the 3-million-acre Tonto National Forest. This use causes erosion damage to a largely unmaintained road network nearly long enough to reach from Los Angeles to New York.
Reaction to the plan to close a handful of roads and ban cross-country travel often started out hostile, but simmered to wary appreciation as the squad of unflappable rangers and forest administrators calmly handled the flurry of questions from the milling crowd.
“I’m just trying to figure out why would you close these off? What are you gaining? All these little trails, we’ve been using them for years — how are we supposed to get around?” demanded Stan Keith of Payson, who said the designation on a dirt track near his house might change in a way that would ban his potentially too-wide quad.
“I’ve buzzed up that road 100 times.”
Steve Glissendorf, of Payson, initially objected to the miles of road designated for closing, until he spent some time deciphering the color coding on the giant map spread out on a table.
“The more I look at it, the more some of it makes sense — but some of it doesn’t. If people would just stick to the roads instead of making new roads, they wouldn’t have to do this.”
The proposals attempt to contain the environmental damage done by a 350 percent increase in Jeep and off-road vehicle use in the past decade. The biggest change would involve an outright ban on cross-country motorized travel, with the exception of several open areas totaling about 2,500 acres on the outskirts of Phoenix. Hunters with permits could drive quads cross country to retrieve game.
Currently, the forest has some 4,300 miles of officially recorded roads and trails, of which, about 600 miles are closed to protect steep slopes. However, an unknown number or “user-created” roads don’t appear on the maps.
The new plan, four years in the preparation, would permanently close about 260 miles of road to protect the environment. However, it would open 450 miles of roads currently closed and add 285 miles of user-created roads to the network.
As a result, the plan would wind up increasing the number of officially designated road miles, although many users peering at the bewildering maps discovered that they’ve been driving for years on supposedly closed roads.
“It’s a balancing act,” said Payson Ranger District Head Ranger Ed Armenta.
He said the Forest Service will change the maps to some degree in response to public comments in the next month.
“But people need to know this is not a vote — it’s about protecting the resource and creating a network we can manage.”
The most important change remains the ban on cross country driving, which not only disturbs wildlife and causes erosion and damage to sensitive areas, but results in the endless expansion of the road and trail system.
“The cross country travel is the main issue that has brought us here,” said Armenta.
The big challenge will come when the district’s handful of rangers confronts the task of enforcing the cross country ban and road closures with a rising tide of users — already topping 1 million annually.
The rules will make a big difference “if we can enforce it — which means getting the public to buy in,” said Armenta.
On the Payson Ranger District, the plan would open 170 miles of roads now designated as closed — although most of those closed roads aren’t currently signed and no one enforces the closures, for the most part.
The plan would close about 10 miles of currently open roads in the district, most of them short, dead-end roads on steep slopes beneath the Rim. However, the plan would also restrict some now-open off-road trails to vehicles less than 50 inches wide, which could exclude some of the larger quads. Forest Service officials say the rules might eventually change in the measurements separating quads from Jeeps, now that quads have grown bigger. Moreover, many of the small, user-created roads not on the map would in theory also be closed.
The intricate color coding on the sprawling maps initially confused many people, but patient responses from the rangers mollified even many of the people who started out as fierce critics.
Beau Bobier, of Payson, started off hostile, but ended up impressed with the apparent willingness of the Forest Service to modify its maps to open or leave open useful roads. “I thought it was closing down roads and we didn’t have a say. I thought it was us against them — but now it seems maybe they’re for us. I guess I’m willing to figure they’re innocent until proven guilty.”
Joe Celavro, of Gisela, said his 4x4 Ham Radio Club sent him to “find out what’s going on.” He said he didn’t mind the ban on off-road travel and the closing of redundant and damaging roads and trails.
However, he noted that “they take one right away, then they take another right away — so you have to watch them. I’m also wondering where they’re going to get all the signs — and then are people going to start shooting?”
One Payson man said he can get on a dirt track near his house and go to Roosevelt Lake or up to the Rim. But he worried that some of the designations might block his route.
“But then, that’s what God made bolt cutters for,” he said darkly.
Most participants agreed readily with the need to bar cross-country travel off the road, but didn’t want the plan to affect the roads they’re used to using.
Some other participants worried that the plan still leaves thousands of miles of road open, with little provision for putting up signs, closing off damaging roads — or even counting up the thousands of miles of “user-created” roads that result when a couple of riders follow the path of someone who has taken off cross country.
“It’s just a huge project,” said Sam Franks, of Prescott, representing the Arizona Wilderness Coalition.
“One of the things that spooks me is that there are hardly any areas without any roads at all. I’m concerned that this process is driven by recreational wants — eventually they’re going to have to say enough is enough. But I guess this is a start.”
Ellen Farnham, an avid Payson hiker, agreed.
“The majority of people here tonight are saying, what are you doing to my trail? My question is, what is the balance?” between off-road use, wildlife and the health of the watershed.
Dusty Miller, of Payson, said “this is a lot better than I expected. This has been very well done — it could have been a very argumentative and contentious evening. But then, we’ve got the responsible people here and it’s the irresponsible people who mess this up.”
Cyndi Tuell, who brought her toddler son to wander among the maps, with the Centers for Biological Diversity, said the densities of even the more than 4,000 miles of designated roads will disturb wildlife, harm riparian areas and accelerate erosion — not to mention the impact of the user-created roads not on the map.
“We would like to see more resource protection so this little guy,” she said shifting her son to the other hip, “can still enjoy the forest.”