The Tonto National Forest took a deep breath, braced for the worst, and this week announced a plan to ban off-road travel throughout the nation’s most Jeeped, dirt-biked, hot-dogged, and scarred national forest.
After two years of delay, forest officials announced plans to ban cross-country motorized trails and shut some 280 miles of existing roads to protect wildlife, streams, archaeological sites and eroding hillsides.
However, the proposed plan would also add 300 miles of new motorized trails and leave open about 500 miles of road that earlier proposals recommended closing.
The release of the forest’s proposed “travel management plan” opens a public comment period that will last from now until Dec. 4, to gather ideas from the public and affected agencies.
In addition, the Forest Service will hold a series of hearings throughout the region, including a 6 p.m., Nov. 18 hearing in Payson at Julia Randall Elementary School.
The release of a proposal caps years of discussion nationwide about how to deal with a dramatic rise in off-road travel in the nation’s forests.
The sprawling Tonto National Forest — which stretches from Phoenix to the Mogollon Rim —has more off-road vehicle users than any forest in the nation. Off-roaders made an estimated 529,000 visits to the Tonto National Forest last year.
Nationally, the number of off-road vehicle users has increased seven-fold in the past 30 years — from 5 million in 1972 to 36 million in 2000.
That dramatic rise has been driven in substantial measure by the growing popularity of quads and dirt bikes. Not only does that dramatically increase the overall use, but the new off-road vehicles can easily make their own paths through the forest. Irresponsible users tear off across country, often climbing straight up vulnerable hillsides. Such ruts quickly erode when it rains, gouging gullies in the hillside and dramatically increasing erosion and siltation in nearby streams.
Congress in 2005 ordered all of the nation’s forests to come up with a new “travel management plan” to reduce the environmental damage done by cross-country use of off-road vehicles.
However, the release of such plans has been delayed year after year, usually by a lack of funding. A dramatic rise in the number of forest fires due to a decade-long drought and a century-long rise in tree densities has consumed much of the Forest Service’s budget. The proposed travel management plan in the 3-million-acre Tonto represents a dramatic change in off-road regulations.
Currently, the rules allow the forest to close specific roads, but not to forbid cross-country travel. As a result, even if rangers close an existing road to protect delicate soils, endangered wildlife or archaeological off-roaders can still legally drive through the forest alongside the road.
The new rules will ban cross-country travel throughout the forest, with a few narrow exceptions.
For instance, hunters with quads going to pick up an elk or deer they legally shot could use their quads to travel cross country.
In addition, the proposal would allow continued, unrestricted cross-country travel in a few popular quad and dirt bike areas. Those open areas would include a 2,390-acre area around Sycamore Creek between Phoenix and Payson. The plan would also leave open smaller areas in the Globe and Mesa ranger districts.
Although the plan would close millions of acres to cross-country travel, it would result in a net increase in the number of established roads and trails. The plan would shut down about 280 miles of existing roads, to protect wildlife and specific sites.
However, it would add 300 miles of new routes, including 140 miles open to all vehicles and 160 miles open to vehicles less than 50 inches wide.
In addition, the plan would leave open about 500 miles of existing roads and trails that earlier proposals would have closed.
Once forest management has gathered public comments, planners will come up with a final set of maps for public release. The maps will show roads and trails open to different types of vehicles, including motorcycles, off-highway vehicles, and street-legal vehicles like Jeeps.
People who need more details or want to comment on the proposed plan can contact the Forest Service at the following addresses: USDA Forest Service, Tonto National Forest, ATTN: Travel Management Project Leader, 2324 E. McDowell Rd. Phoenix, AZ 85006; FAX, ATTN: Travel Management Project Leader: 602-225-5295; e-mail to: email@example.com.