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Natural Resources

Forest Firestorm

An environmentalist and an outdoorsman square off over the Forest Service's controversial new Travel Management rules.

On June 10, the Gila National Forest announced completion of its Travel Management Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS). Alternative "G" was selected after analysis by forest specialists and evaluation of more than 2,000 comments and public meetings, open houses and study beginning in 2006. Implementation of the decision is expected in early 2015 once a 45-day appeal period has passed.

Under the new rules, use of the forest as cross-country travel will no longer be allowed. Only a designated system of roads, trails and other areas will be allowed for motorized vehicle use. Non-motorized travel, including hiking, horseback riding and canoeing, is not affected. Hunters are allowed to drive up to 300 feet from either side of roads designated with a corridor to retrieve big game. Campers can use 1,316 miles of designated motorized dispersed camping corridors and 36 areas. Fuel-wood cutters can use their motorized vehicle within designated cutting areas.

To help readers better understand the rules and the attendant controversy, we asked Donna Stevens, executive director of the Upper Gila Watershed Alliance, and "Ramblin' Outdoors" columnist Larry Lightner to write about what they see as the pros and cons of the Travel Management decision.

 

By Donna Stevens

 

Combining two little words into the phrase "Travel Management" generates the power to boil blood. Since 2005, when I began my involvement with the Gila National Forest's Travel Management (TM) process, I've witnessed the meltdown of otherwise reasonable individuals at TM meetings.

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ATVs raise dust in Saddle Rock Canyon, March 2010.
(Photo: Donna Stevens)

I understand that many people are resistant to change, but Travel Management is hardly new. Way back in 1972, President Richard Nixon tried to address public safety, resource damage, and conflicts resulting from unmanaged off-road vehicle (ORV) use. Not much progress was made, and in subsequent decades ORVs became more powerful and their use much more widespread. In 2005, unmanaged ORV use was identified as one of the top four threats facing America's national forests, resulting in the George W. Bush administration passing the Travel Management rule, mandating that all national forests in the country look at where their road systems were causing damage to our public lands and taking steps to stop it. The purpose of TM is to ensure plenty of access to our forests while minimizing conflict among recreational users, ensuring public safety, and protecting natural resources.

 

How do ORVs impact natural resources? There are direct consequences, such as crushing vegetation and killing wildlife. There are also indirect, less obvious but no less destructive effects.

ORV tires can spread invasive weed seeds for dozens of miles. These exotic plants thrive in disturbed areas and outcompete native species. Changes in plant communities harm insects, birds and other wildlife that depend on native plants for food, cover and nesting sites. ORVs access areas that were previously quite remote, spreading invasive plants throughout the Gila National Forest.

Wildlife are disturbed by the intrusion, noise and dust of off-road vehicles. Habitat loss and fragmentation are the greatest causes of wildlife decline and extinction. Dirt roads that appear benign to us can present insurmountable barriers to many wildlife species.

ORVs compact the soil, causing runoff and creating erosion, and sending too much sediment into streams, where it harms water quality, native fish, and sport fisheries.

ORV use damages streams, riparian areas, wetlands and watersheds. Many ORV users like to drive in dry washes that lack surface water but are still productive riparian areas because of their high water table. In arid southwest New Mexico, we need to take every precaution to protect our scarce water sources and riparian habitat.

Full-size vehicles have the same negative effects as ORVs, but because ORVs can travel to places where trucks cannot, ORV impacts are greater.

 

Will the Travel Management decision change your forest experience? The Travel Management decision, released in June, will affect everyone. No one is completely happy with it. That's the nature of compromise in a democracy.

The biggest change, and one that's well overdue, is that driving off road or cross-country in the forest will end. This means that drivers will be required to drive only on forest roads that are identified as open. The Lincoln and Coronado National Forests have been managed this way for more than 20 years.

This decision will leave 3,334 miles of roads open. Just for fun, let's do a math word problem, the kind we all loved in grade school. Q: If you drive 20 miles an hour — faster than you can safely travel on many of the forest's rutted two-track roads — how long will it take to drive all 3,334 miles of roads in the forest? Assume that you don't have to retrace your tracks. A: 167 hours, or 7 days if you were driving 24 hours a day.

There are enough roads in the Gila National Forest to drive for seven solid days, enough to drive from San Diego to Maine, but some people claim that's not enough. We're still scratching our heads over that one. In fact, conservationists think there are far too many roads left open. We advocated for a road system that would better protect natural resources while still giving all of us plenty of places to drive in the forest. There are still so many roads in the Gila that, outside of wilderness areas, 84% of the forest is within one mile of an open road and 96% is within two miles of a road. (See map.)

With childhood and adult obesity and diabetes at epidemic levels, anyone who's able should park their vehicles and get out and walk. It's good for our physical, mental and spiritual health, and one observes much more on foot than in a noisy vehicle. Many studies prove that the natural world is very beneficial to our health. Driving bestows no such benefits.

 

Looking at just one road that has caused controversy, the "road" down the San Francisco River, you can see the unreasonableness of those who advocate leaving every road open for every use. This road crosses the San Francisco River dozens of times from Big Dry Creek down to Mule Creek. Downstream of the Mule Creek confluence, driving in the Frisco has been prohibited since the 1980s. With the TM decision, the entire river will be off-limits to off-road vehicles; this is great news for the imperiled species that live in this stretch of the river. Unfortunately, the road in Little and Big Dry Creeks that heads directly into the San Francisco will stay open, allowing the continued trashing of these two creeks that are important to wildlife and people seeking a quiet forest experience and making enforcement a nightmare.

The pink shading shows the 84% of the forest, outside of wilderness areas, that is less than one mile from an open road.

Other rivers don't fare quite as well as the San Francisco. The Gila's decision includes 24 road crossings of stream segments that are eligible for Wild and Scenic River designation. This decision also leaves roads open in Wilderness Study Areas, which are supposed to be managed for wilderness characteristics. Just as troubling are the more than 240 miles of open roads and trails in Inventoried Roadless Areas, violating the spirit of the law in these remote places, and degrading wildlife habitat.

An important feature of TM restores the traditional hunting experience to most of the forest. Driving to retrieve downed deer or elk will be allowed for up to 300 feet (the length of a football field) on either side of 1,300 miles of roads, leaving more than 94,000 acres open for motorized big game retrieval. The largest sportsmen's groups in the state — including New Mexico Wildlife Federation, Trout Unlimited-New Mexico, Doña Ana County Associated Sportsmen, and the state chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers — support the decision to manage driving to pick up big game in this way. This part of the decision is supported by the state Department of Game and Fish.

These same 94,000 acres designated for motorized big game retrieval are also Dispersed Camping areas. People can drive up to 300 feet from either side of these roads to set up camp. We won't be crowded into official campgrounds, as some critics have claimed, and we'll still be allowed to camp anywhere in the forest — all 3.3 million acres — if we're willing to park our vehicles next to the road and walk to a secluded camp spot.




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