Off-Road Plan Irks County

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Galled by the a Forest Service plan to control cross-country travel, the Gila County supervisors want more time and input.

In a letter to Tonto National Forest Supervisor Gene Blankenbaker, Supervisor Tommie Martin said the county needs more than 30 days to analyze thousands of pages of information released recently as part of the forest’s travel management plan.

The plan would ban cross-country travel, but leave open 5,300 miles of existing dirt roads and trails. The plan would close some existing roads, but open other currently closed roads and trails — resulting in a net increase of perhaps 1,200 miles of approved roads.

“Since the Tonto Forest has been working on this travel management plan since 2007, we believe that a 30-day response period is inadequate for this critical piece of this process,” wrote Martin.

Her letter strongly objected to a Forest Service press release that omitted information on how people can object to the plan before it becomes final. The proposed plan was released two years behind schedule, after a series of hearings at which people made comments on a preliminary plan.

“To not admit in the press release that if you don’t make comments you many not appeal is confusing,” said Martin at the meeting.

Under Forest Service rules, you can only officially appeal for changes in the final plan if you raised objections to the preliminary plan.

Martin’s letter said the maps didn’t show all the current open and closed roads and trails, which makes it impossible to compare how the proposed changes will affect forest traffic.

At hearings two years ago, many Rim Country residents objected to plans to close some roads they use to get around in the backcountry.

Jacque Griffin, the director of the Gila County Library District, reported at this week’s county meeting that the maps of the proposed roads and trails restrict travel on about 200-plus miles, but “It’s hard to figure out a specific road or trail,” she said, “and the listed miles don’t match.”

The letter also asked for the Forest Service to add an economic analysis to the travel management plan. Because the Indian tribes and the federal government control 96 percent of land in Gila County, many residents have historically relied on the forest for their livelihood.

Martin has concerns the Forest Service’s plan will limit economic opportunities for a population suffering from high unemployment and poverty rates.

Congress directed every national forest in the country to come up with a plan to control off-road travel, due to an explosion in the use of off highway vehicles (OHV). Each forest must sharply limit cross-country travel and designate roads open to motor vehicles. The agency hoped to limit erosion and damage to wildlife, watersheds and air quality.

Supervisor Shirley Dawson agreed the Forest Service needs a plan to isolate areas for mechanical travel. Recently, she had to help a constituent with a wild steer running loose due to fences cut by four-wheelers trying to go cross-country.

However, she said she couldn’t figure out the maps provided with the proposed plan. To her it looked as though the Forest Service is trying to close off the forest.

“At least let people enjoy it,” she said.

Supervisor Michael Pastor’s district includes Tonto Basin. Many of his constituents ride ATVs.

When he shared the proposed travel management plan with them, they said the Forest Service already bars vehicles from 920 square miles of wilderness areas — including the Sierra Anchas and Hellsgate. They said as a result, the Forest Service should not close any additional areas.

They insisted any four-wheelers in their district follow the rules. They would prefer to self-police other riders rather than close roads.

Martin has concerns that the travel management plan as currently written will close the forest not only to OHVs but also shut down efforts to create a lumber industry that could aid in the control of forest fires.

“The Tonto Forest is a different kind of beast,” said Martin, “they’re still trying to do a one size fits all approach.”

The plan calls for the creation of four areas totaling 1,417 acres that would allow unlimited cross-country travel.

In the Payson Ranger District, the proposed plan would leave open 982 miles of road, almost unchanged from the preliminary plan released two years ago.

In the Tonto Basin Ranger District, the plan would leave open 987 miles of road, also little changed from the preliminary plan, according to the study that accompanied the release of the final version.

Environmental groups have objected to the plan to leave 5,300 miles of road open since the forest admits it has only a fraction of the money needed to maintain that network.

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