Scott Streater, E&E reporter
Greenwire: Wednesday, June 4, 2014

A coalition of environmental groups say they’re upset that the Forest Service has proposed formally establishing more than 3,500 miles of off-road trails in the massive Tonto National Forest just north of Phoenix.

But the Forest Service states in a recently released draft environmental impact statement (EIS) that the proposed motorized travel management plan is necessary to keep off-highway vehicles (OHV) on designated roads and trails, away from natural and cultural resources across the nearly 3-million-acre forest.

The issue over the first-ever forestwide motorized plan at Tonto National Forest has once again sparked debate over the multiuse mandate governing national forestland and the need to balance resource protections with public access.

The plan would decommission 1,290 miles of roads in the nation’s fifth-largest forest. Overall, it would establish 1,340 miles of designated roads and 2,230 miles of motorized trails open for public use. It would also allow motorized access, up to 1 mile on both sides of designated roads and motorized trails, for retrieval of legally harvested elk and bear (totaling approximately 1.3 million acres), and a corridor of 100 feet on both sides of designated roads and motorized trails for dispersed camping, according to the draft EIS.

The 2,230 miles of motorized trails in the proposed action is the greatest amount of the four major alternatives studied in the draft EIS.

The coalition of environmental groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity and the Sierra Club, acknowledge that implementing a motorized travel management plan restricting OHV use to designated roads and trails would help guard against inadvertent damage to sensitive wildlife habitat and archaeological sites.

But they say the proposed plan risks damaging watersheds and wildland areas that includes habitat for endangered species such as the Mexican spotted owl and southwestern willow flycatcher. And they say the Forest Service has not properly analyzed the impacts of these roads and trails on the watersheds in the forest that help supply drinking water to the Phoenix metropolitan area.

“Anyone who’s been to the Tonto National Forest knows it’s an Arizona treasure. 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,” Katie Davis, public lands campaigner for the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “By allowing four-wheelers and other vehicles 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.”

The groups also say the Forest Service does not have the financial resources to enforce restricting OHV use to the designated trails and roads.

The Tonto National Forest was established in 1905, in part, to protect the watersheds of the Salt and Verde rivers, which produce billions of gallons of water each year to the Phoenix area and provide habitat for numerous species, the groups say.

“Due to its proximity to the Phoenix metro area, the Tonto is one of the most heavily used and abused national forests in the country,” Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter in Phoenix, said in a statement. “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.”

Bryan Bird, wild places program director with WildEarth Guardians, added, “Our national forests are too precious to allow [off-highway] users to decide where they will ride without any thought about impacts to water and wildlife.”

Forest Service officials at Tonto National Forest referred questions to Anne Thomas, the national forest’s National Environmental Policy Act coordinator, who could not be reached for comment.

But the preferred alternative in the draft EIS would decommission about 1,290 miles of existing roads in the national forest.

And the Forest Service notes in the draft EIS that the proposed action “would provide the most balance between protection of the natural and cultural resources, while still providing motorized access to the public for a variety of recreational opportunities.”

The Forest Service is taking the right approach by developing a motorized travel management plan, said Del Albright, director of operations for the Pocatello, Idaho-based BlueRibbon Coalition, an OHV interest group.

“BlueRibbon has been involved in travel management since the very beginning because we understand the need to focus recreation where it belongs,” Albright said. “Travel management gives us a foundation to ensure there’s responsible use on public lands because it shows where people can go and not tear things up.”

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