After four years of study, the Tonto National Forest has proposed a plan to limit off-road vehicles to an existing network of roughly 3,700 miles of dirt roads and user-created trails.
The Forest Service found numerous mistakes in the maps it released in 2009, before concluding it should do a full-fledged environmental impact study of the far reaching plan to limit environmental damage caused by the explosion of off-road vehicle use.
Rim Country residents back in 2009 mostly blasted the first version of the plan, complaining it cut off some of their favorite routes and would make it harder to get around. The new preferred plan would add about 300 miles of trails to the system, but would shut off about 1,300 miles of existing trails.
Environmental groups promptly blasted the new plan for the opposite reason, saying it will threaten endangered species, cause erosion that will silt up and damage streams and harm archaeological sites.
“Anyone who’s been to the Tonto National Forest knows it’s an Arizona treasure,” said Katie Davis, public lands coordinator for the Center for Biological Diversity. “Unfortunately, the Forest Service seems more interested in catering to a small number of off-road vehicle riders at the expense of the public and endangered animals.
“By allowing four-wheelers on these roads and trails that were never part of the official road system, the Forest Service is condoning bad behavior and neglecting the wishes of most people who enjoy the forest.”
Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter, said, “What this national forest needs is more protection, not a plan that caters to the off-road vehicle industry and that promotes even more abuse of these fragile public lands.”
Currently, people can drive off-road virtually anywhere in the Payson and Pleasant Valley ranger districts.
Off-road vehicle use has roughly tripled in the past decade and the Tonto National Forest has about 1 million off-roaders annually, making it the most heavily used forest in the country.
The Tonto Forest released four alternative plans, but said it prefers alternative C — which would shut down 1,290 miles of existing roads and trails – most of them little used or close to sensitive areas.
The plan would leave 1,340 miles of dirt roads and 2,230 miles of motorized trails open to public use and another 500 miles open to use by the Forest Service and Arizona Game and Fish Department. Alternative C would also designate 6,790 acres for continued cross-country travel — including about 4,500 acres between the high water line and the shoreline of Roosevelt Lake.
Off-roaders could drive freely all around the shore of the lake without staying on trails. The plan would also leave wide open another area in Sycamore Canyon between Phoenix and Payson.
The plan includes another 116,000 acres open to cross-country travel with a permit, most of them on the outskirts of Phoenix and Mesa.
The plan would allow hunters to drive up to a mile off designated roads to retrieve the bodies of elk and deer they have shot. That would open another 1.2 million acres to cross-country travel, but only for the roughly 200 hunters a year, the study concluded.
Campers could drive up to 100 feet off a designated road to find a campsite. People looking for firewood could drive into the forest for 300 feet on either side of a road to gather wood.
The just-released analysis concluded Alternative C would reduce damage to the environment considerably from the current, uncontrolled situation.
Alternative A would involve no change in the rules, but Congress has ordered all the forests in the country to come up with a plan to limit cross-country travel. Most of the other forests in Arizona have long since adopted their plans and released maps of the designated trail networks. The Tonto Forest has lagged far behind.
Alternative B would restrict travel the most, with 2,367 miles of roads and trails closed down. That would leave about 900 miles of roads and 1,666 miles of trails for vehicles. Alternative B would only allow people gathering wood to drive off the established road — and then only for 300 feet.
Alternative D would provide the most access for off-roaders. It would decommission only 194 miles of roads, mostly already abandoned or obliterated trails. It would designate 3,347 miles of road and 1,520 miles of motorized trails. It would allow hunters retrieving elk, deer, bear, mule deer and white-tailed deer to drive up to a mile off the road. Alternative D would provide a 300-foot corridor for both wood-gathering and dispersed camping. It would also designate about 6,700 acres for continued unrestricted off-roading.
The environmental analysis came down in favor of Alternative C, which fell between the most restrictive plan and the most wide-open.
Alternative C would add about 330 miles of currently unauthorized roads and trails to the official system — mostly pathways created by users themselves. All told, this alternative would include 4,133 miles of roads and trails, about 3,569 miles of them open to the general public. Of that, 544 miles could accommodate passenger vehicles, 800 miles high-clearance vehicles and 2,100 only true, off-road vehicles. Another 78 miles would accommodate only dirt bikes.
In one telling section of the report, the Forest Service admits it only budgets about one-quarter of the money it needs to actually maintain the existing road system. While the report concludes that won’t change, at least closing down some roads will reduce the shortfall.
The analysis shows “that the needed budget to maintain our roads will exceed our available budget by five times,” the report concludes.
The miles of roads the Tonto National Forest can afford to maintain has declined steadily in recent years, shrinking from 800 miles in 2009 to about 500 miles in 2012.
The report concedes that the dense network of roads and trails has an impact on streams, wildlife and endangered species. However, eliminating cross-country travel in most areas and closing down some of the existing roads and trails will reduce that impact.
The report writers note that as off-road vehicle use has exploded, so have conflicts with other people who use the forest.
“There is a growing contingent of the population living at the forest’s edge that is distressed by what they view as constant noise, dust, unchecked trespass, and resource damage associated with unmanaged motor vehicle use.”
They nicely summarized the feelings expressed at a series of hearings in Payson recently on a proposal by the Payson Ranger District to convert the Houston Mesa Horse Camp into a camp for off-roaders towing trailers. The plan would also create four trailhead parking areas to serve as a staging ground where off-roaders could unload their vehicle.
Many off-roaders head for the high country because the Tonto National Forest and Maricopa County have shut down many dirt roads and trails in the Valley to comply with federal air quality regulations due to the dust thrown up by the off-road vehicles. That has increasingly diverted off-roaders to areas like Gila County, with its pristine air and lack of federal restrictions on dust-producing activities.
Surveys also show that even 82 percent of off-road vehicle users are critical of the behavior of fellow riders, who tear off cross country and drive straight up hillsides, leaving scars that quickly become gullies.
Studies also show that off-road vehicle use near streams sharply increases erosion and silt in the water, which affects a host of creatures.
The Payson Ranger District plan that provoked the ire of horse riders also proposed to keep people from driving along or camping on the banks of the East Verde River.
An estimated 22 percent of the population of Arizona says they participate in off-roading, with about half of those regular users. Some estimates put the economic value of off-roading at $4 billion in Arizona.
Almost all of the Indian tribes consulted by the Forest Service urged the federal government to close as many roads as possible near archaeological and sacred sites, especially on the borders of the reservations.
Environmental groups say the explosion in off-roading demands some kind of control to protect the forest, not only for wildlife but for other people.
Congress created the Tonto Forest in 1905, primarily to protect the watersheds of the Salt and Verde rivers, which produce 350,000 acre-feet of water annually for the Valley.
“Our national forests are too precious to allow ORV users to decide where they will ride without any thought about impacts to water and wildlife,” said Larry Bird, with WildEarth Guardians.