During busy summer weekends, thousands of off-highway vehicle enthusiasts convene on the Tonto and Coconino national forests for a bit of off-road fun.
A nearly four-fold increase in off-road use in the last three decades is the driving force behind the National Forest Service’s effort to ban cross-country travel and designate a forest-wide plan of appropriate routes and trails.
The Forest Service proposes to close down several hundred miles of roads in its new travel management plan, but also open several hundred closed routes and add several hundred unauthorized routes to the system.
The plan limits cross-country travel across forest lands, and this has sparked outrage from some residents.
At a recent Payson Tea Party meeting, several people expressed concern the government and Forest Service was taking away their right to travel across the forest.
One woman argued the forest belonged to the people and therefore she had a right to cross it. With this plan, “we are being locked out,” she said.
Two Forest Service officials, Mike Dechter with Coconino National Forest and Genevieve Johnson with Tonto National Forest, fielded a battery of questions on the plan and did their best to explain its purpose.
“We are not trying to convince you it is a good or bad thing, but to inform you,” Dechter said.
Right now, anyone can drive through the forest virtually anywhere and the Forest Service has seen a 347 percent increase in off-highway vehicle use in the past decade. The travel management plan would limit off-highway travel to certain roads.
Anyone driving on a road not part of the plan could receive a ticket.
The Forest Service would provide a Motor Vehicle Use Map (MVUM) of open and closed routes free.
The Forest Service has been working on the travel plan since 2006, and they received more than 4,000 letters and held 21 open houses. Now Coconino expects to issue its plan in December, with Tonto following in the summer of 2012. Once the maps are out, the plan is enforceable.
Coconino has not made a final ruling on what the plan will look like and is still analyzing three alternative management plans. The “preferred alternative” would designate 3,097 miles of open roads and add 39 miles of motorized trails.
The preferred plan also tackles dispersed camping corridors and big game retrieval.
In Coconino, dispersed camping, also known as car camping, will likely be restricted to designated corridors on more than 600 miles of road.
Campers can drive no more than 300 feet off designated roads to set up camp.
The proposed plan likely won’t affect most hunters, who can still drive off road one mile to collect their bear, bison, elk or mule deer.
One woman asked, But what if my elk is farther than a mile away from the road — am I supposed to leave it?
With Coconino’s plan, the answer is likely no, Dechter said. The forest has so many roads there is usually another road within a mile. In Tonto National Forest, hunters may only be allowed to go 200 yards off the road, but no plan has been set.
The issue of retrieving big game sparked a nerve with Tea Party members, with most against any restrictions on retrieval.
Tonto plans to release the draft of an environmental analysis in the fall and that will begin a 30-day public comment period.
Tonto is considering four plans — no action, modified action, less motorized access and more motorized access.
Residents can weigh in by contacting Johnson, project team leader, at (602) 225-5213, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or http://www.fs.fed.us/r3/tonto.
Johnson admits the process is taking a long time, but said that is because they want to do it right.
It takes awhile she said to analyze 4,000 miles of road, including 500 miles of unauthorized roads.
The worst thing that could happen would be publishing the plan and then having to redesign it, she said.
Johnson hopes the new maps will make it easier for people to travel through the 3 million acres the Tonto National Forest covers.
Currently, the forest’s road system is very mismatched, with some roads open part of the year and others closed when they should be open. This can be very confusing for the 6 million annual recreational visitors. But the maps should make it clear what roads are travelable, the two said.
Resident Dan Adams said the whole idea of travel management sounded like it was for environmentalists.
Johnson said the majority of lawsuits against the Forest Service are from environmental groups who feel the Forest Service isn’t doing enough, so clearly the plan is not for environmentalists.
The growth of off-road travel is outpacing the Forest Service’s ability to protect the forest and maintain safe recreational access, according to a Tonto National Forest report.
The proposed travel management plans will manage this increased use while protecting the forest’s fragile ecosystems.