The Gila County Sheriff’s office has joined with other local officials to protest a new U.S. Forest Service threat to impound and tow away trailers left in the forest for more than 72 hours, according to Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin.
Hunters have for decades set up camps, often with trailers, in areas where they have tags to hunt. Many of the hunters leave the camps and trailers set up for a week or two at a time, mindful of a Forest Service regulation that prevents camping in one spot for more than two weeks.
Local officials like Supervisor Martin have joined with the Arizona Department of Game and Fish to protest the sudden imposition of the new rule.
“They haven’t said a damn word to explain it except ‘that’s the rule, and that’s what we’re doing’” said Martin.
Forest Service officials had not returned calls at press time about the situation. Various officials have offered conflicting accounts as to whether the rules apply to the Tonto National Forest. The boundary between the Coconino and Tonto National Forests runs along the edge of the Mogollon Rim and down the middle of Fossil Creek. Highway 260 on top of the Rim forms the boundary between the Coronado and Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests. It is unclear whether the new rule applies on the Apache-Sitgreaves Forest.
However, Martin said the issue has spawned confusion among hunters and resistance among local officials.
She said the Coconino County Sheriff told the Forest Service he wouldn’t cooperate in enforcement of the new rule, after hunters complained. Martin said she knows of two cases in which hunters returned to their camps on Anderson Mesa to find their trailers gone. They ultimately had to pay $1,000 to get their trailers out of impoundment in Phoenix.
“The sheriff was suddenly confronted with hunters’ ire, saying ‘what the hell’s going on?’”
She said Gila County Sheriff Adam Shepherd joined with sheriffs from several other northern Arizona counties to warn the Forest Service they won’t enforce the new rules, despite the existence of a cooperative agreement between the Forest Service and local sheriff’s offices to provide law enforcement on federal lands.
“We’re saying, you’re not going to pit us against a constituency. This is not our fight — and we don’t approve of the law because it is capricious and arbitrary.”
She noted that many deputies are themselves hunters who have been setting up such camps for 20 years. “What’s it going to hurt to have a camp trailer up there for a week or 10 days. I just don’t see the harm. All I know is that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Once these rules show up — and they’re stupid rules — they’ll hang onto them for dear life trying to make them work.”
Martin noted that Gila County also refused to help enforce Forest Service closures during the recent government shutdown. “We were expected to enforce closing the lakes and whatnot. We did not do that. We chose to give people the information, but not to enforce that,” said Martin.
The trailer rule threatens to galvanize the resistance of local officials to federal regulations on a broader front. Already, lawmakers like state Rep. Brenda Barton (R-Payson) have argued that local sheriffs have a constitutional authority that would allow them to ignore federal regulations they believe violate the constitution. She and other lawmakers have argued therefore that local law enforcement officials don’t have to enforce federal regulations on federal lands. The flashpoint for that debate has centered on Forest Service Travel Management Plans, mandated by Congress to keep off-road vehicles from taking off cross-country and doing considerable environmental damage. The Tonto National Forest is in the process of deciding which of the roughly 5,000 miles of dirt roads to close off or leave open as part of that mandated travel management plan. But sheriff’s deputies currently enforce a wide range of laws and regulations on Forest Service land, including regulation of campfires, firearms and other rules.
The Forest Service imposed the new rule with little or no consultation with the Arizona Department of Game and Fish, which regulates hunting in the state and gleans much of its operating budget from the fees hunters pay for permits.
Calling the move “unprecedented,” the Arizona Game and Fish Commission and Department contends the regulation hurts hunters, anglers and other recreational users.
“This has been real disruptive to hunters and citizens who are trying to obey the law,” said Jim Paxon, chief of information for Game and Fish.
A press release issued by the Coconino National Forest said the rules would apply to all national forests in Arizona. However, Paxton told the Cronkite News Service that the Forest Service told him the rules won’t apply in the Apache-Sitgreaves, Tonto and Coronado national forests. There, he said, trailers can park for 14 days, as has been the rule for decades.
Larry Voyles, director of the Arizona Game and Fish Commission and Department, asked the Forest Service to revert to the old, 14-day policy. “Creating an enforcement philosophy that applies to half the forests in Arizona creates a level of confusion among our customers,” Voyles said. “A situation where a person may be cited, or have their equipment impounded, creates a scenario where a hunter may simply choose not to spend the money and time to participate,” Voyles said.
The Coconino National Forest’s public affairs office directed a reporter to Cathie Schmidlin, a regional spokeswoman for the Forest Service, who emailed a statement saying that the agency’s law enforcement officers make “every effort” to contact hunters before taking action.
ELISA CORDOVA of the Cronkite News Service contributed to this article.