Delayed Tonto Forest Travel Plan In Limbo

Year-long wait for road plan leaves scores of Rim Country communities with no emergency escape routes

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The Tonto National Forest still isn’t sure when it will make a decision on how to regulate thousands of miles of dirt roads in Rim Country — including emergency escape routes for many of the 88 small communities surrounded by overgrown forests.

The Tonto National Forest held hearings in Payson a year ago to gather public comments on its Travel Management Plan. Rangers at that meeting said they expected to release final maps in December of 2009. Instead, the process has seemingly been stalled for a year.

That means scores of forest communities with no back door to flee an approaching fire continue to play Russian roulette in a region considered among the most fire-prone in the country.

The 3-million-acre Tonto National Forest’s preliminary Travel Management Plan proposed permanently closing some 260 miles of the district’s 4,200 miles of dirt roads to protect wildlife and archaeological sites from the 350 percent jump in use of off-road vehicles in the past decade.

The preliminary plan would also re-open about 450 miles of roads that are currently closed and add about 285 miles of “user-created” roads.

The Travel Management Plan is expected to ban all cross country driving, except in several off-road play areas and in the case of hunters using an all terrain vehicle to retrieve their kill.

In Rim Country, the lengthening delay in finishing the Travel Management Plan has cast into limbo Gila County’s long, frustrating effort to get the Forest Service to provide emergency escape routes for many communities.

Gila County has been seeking such emergency access for these subdivided lands for years. That effort gained urgency last year when the Water Wheel Fire forced the hasty evacuation of Beaver Valley on a single, narrow dirt road. Residents have begged the Forest Service for years to let the county send a bulldozer to improve a short, existing, closed dirt track to provide a back door exit.

However, Tonto National Forest Supervisor Gene Blankenbaker said forest planners will have to finish the large-scale plan before taking up the case of all those back door routes.

He said the Forest Service might release the updated maps in December and blamed some of the year-long delay on concerns about dust rising from dirt roads in Maricopa County, which contribute significantly to that county’s failure to meet federal air quality standards.

“We’re scrambling now to do a little more assessment work on addressing that concern,” said Blankenbaker.”

He said the overall process might include roads that would serve as back door escapes from communities like Beaver Valley and a host of others, but that those also might require further study once the overall plan is complete.

“I’d have to look at the maps and look at each of those individual areas to see if we could address them in the first go-around.

“Any unclassified, non-systems roads that were out there have to be brought into the system if they’re going to be authorized under this travel management process.

“There were so many of those that we would never get this first decision out if we had to wait and review and analyze each one of those.

“There’s a trade-off between being exhaustively comprehensive and getting the job done.”

Local officials have repeatedly expressed frustration with the years of confusion and delay in getting even a short stretch of road opened for emergency access — even if the road remains locked until an approach fire makes it critical.

However, Blankenbaker said that the Forest Service had to follow the rules set by the Department of Agriculture, which four years ago ordered all the forests in the country to come up with travel management plans. That directive came in response to evidence that a dramatic surge in the use of off-road vehicles had inflicted severe damage on watersheds and wildlife.

In the Tonto National Forest, an estimated 1 million people each year drive on a network of poorly maintained dirt roads that could stretch from Phoenix to New York.

The effort to enter all the existing roads and trails into a computerized data base has proved a time-consuming task. The Payson and Pleasant Valley ranger districts posed a special challenge because those two regions previously had no restrictions on off-highway travel, which means the process had to start almost from scratch, said Blankenbaker.

“So we had 2.8 million acres of forest with thousands of miles of road to be analyzed, inventoried and all of that,” said Blankenbaker.

“It’s just a matter of volume of work and practicality. You could look at it the other way: We could focus on 10 miles of road for three communities and 90 percent of the forest would be left in the lurch without an approved plan.”

Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin has decried the “bureaucratic nightmare” that had blocked her past efforts to win the approval of secondary escape routes. To add to the frustration, many of those back door routes already exist, but have been closed by the Forest Service.

She said the county could provide Beaver Valley with its emergency exit in one day if the Forest Service would give it permission. However, Geronimo Estates, the Diamond Point subdivisions and others face an equally dangerous situation.

She had hoped that the Travel Management planning process would provide a quick way to get those vital routes added. Instead, the emergency routes have vanished into the thicket of the much larger process.

Officials in the Payson Ranger District of the Tonto National Forest have said that Gila County needs to come up with the money to provide escape routes for about 65 “inholdings” in the district, since the district lacks the resources.

Many communities north of the Control Road face the most critical danger, given fire patterns in dry seasons. Many summer fires originate below the Rim and then move north, driven by hot winds from the south. Perhaps the best known example is the Dude Fire, which killed six firefighters struggling to protect Bonita Creek Estates.

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