Arizona Game and Fish game wardens won’t have to enforce federal restrictions on off-road travel if Gov. Jan Brewer signs a strike-all bill ushered through the Legislature by Sen. Chester Crandell (R-Heber), who represents Rim Country.
Crandell inserted a bill that means state officials need not enforce new, federal travel management rules, intended to prevent most cross-country travel and restrict ORVs, Jeeps and SUVs to approved trails and roads.
He inserted the language into House Bill 2551. The Arizona Game and Fish Department initially opposed the bill, but then backed the bill after Crandell agreed to add language that made it clear state rangers can act when preventing resource damage or protecting public safety.
“The bill permits Game and Fish officers to enforce laws related to habitat damage and other duties important to the department’s mission,” the department concluded, “while giving officers discretion in enforcing federal travel management rules that are lower priority or that might impede achieving wildlife management objectives.”
However, the Arizona Wildlife Federation opposed the bill on the grounds that the restrictions on off-road travel are essential to protecting wildlife. “We cannot support any legislation that would reduce the ability to enforce these important, complex and sometimes controversial regulations.”
Previously, state law automatically adopted federal regulations on federal lands, making those rules enforceable by Game and Fish law enforcement employees.
An explosion of off-road use starting about a decade ago has inflicted damage on millions of acres of federal lands, according to numerous studies. Heavy use of off-road vehicles running cross-country instead of on established roads and trails causes increases in erosion, fills streams with silt, affects wildlife and poses a significant increased risk of wildfires. Nearly a decade ago, Congress ordered the U.S. Forest Service to come up with a plan to restrict cross-country travel and limit the damage done by off-road vehicles.
The Forest Service ordered each national forest to come up with a travel management plan to limit off-road travel and designate a network of roads.
The Coconino and Apache-Sitgreaves Forests have already adopted travel management plans, limiting off-road travel to a few open areas and to hunters retrieving game within a certain distance of a road.
The 3-million-acre Tonto National Forest drafted a plan it released in 2009 that would have banned off-road travel except for hunters retrieving game up to 200 yards off a designated road and people using four-wheelers in designated open areas totaling about 1,400 acres.
The draft plan would have closed about 280 miles of existing roads and trails, added about 300 miles of existing roads and trails to the network of some 5,400 miles of roads.
However, Tonto National Forest officials then decided to prepare a full-fledged environmental impact statement on the proposed plan. Forest officials say they’ll release the results of that environmental impact statement and a new proposed map of the roads sometime this summer.
In the meantime, Crandell’s bill would make it so the state doesn’t have to enforce the federal restrictions. However, the state has also imposed a license fee on all off-road vehicles — whether they’re driven off the paved road or not. Several local off-roaders say they’ve received tickets for not getting the $15 annual permit. State regulations don’t restrict cross-country travel, but bar operation of an off-road vehicle within a quarter-mile of any building or stock tank.