Flagstaff, AZ — Following an appeal by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and other conservation groups, the Forest Service late Friday conceded to re-do an off-road vehicle plan for lands adjacent to Grand Canyon National Park. The Kaibab National Forest will reanalyze an off-road vehicle plan that would have allowed nearly unfettered off-road vehicle access that threatened archeological sites, watershed conditions, and wildlife habitat and would have continued the spread of invasive species.
The plan would have allowed hunters to drive ORVs one mile from any road to retrieve downed elk—leaving virtually all lands open to off-road vehicle damage. In addition, the plan would have damaged the habitat of sensitive species such as the northern goshawk, American pronghorn, mountain lion, and black bear — species spanning both National Forest and National Park lands.
“The Tusayan Ranger District’s plan would have continued rather than curbed damage resulting from off-road vehicle use,” said Cyndi Tuell, southwest conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity. “We’re encouraged that the Forest Service agrees with our appeal, and we look forward to a plan that makes public land and wildlife protection the top priority.”
Early in the planning process conservation groups proposed a plan that offered habitat protection, quiet recreation, and a classic hunting experience. The Tusayan Ranger District ignored that proposal. On Friday, the Forest Service directed the Tusayan Ranger District to withdraw its decision, to fully analyze the conservation alternative and reanalyze the other plan alternatives using the best available science.
The Travel Management Rule requires the Forest Service to ban cross-country motorized travel to protect habitat for sensitive species and watershed quality.
“This final decision failed to protect wildlife habitat and was not based on the best available scientific information,” said Kim Crumbo, conservation director for the Flagstaff-based Grand Canyon Wildlands Council. “After years of working with the Forest Service and a careful review of the plan and the decision, we were disappointed at the failure to protect forest resources. The appeal decision makes it clear the District has to base their plan in reality.”
“This is a statewide victory and a win for public lands overall,” said Sandy Bahr, chapter director for the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter. “The Forest Service has made it clear that ranger districts and forests must develop plans that protect natural resources and must consider consistent, factual information over a desire to coddle the off-road vehicle industry, which facilitates the rampant destruction of public lands and resources.”
"This fragile, arid forest has been slashed by too many off-road vehicles, too many eroded tracks, and suffered too many bad decisions from Forest Service managers, who pushed excess, not reasonable access," said Daniel Patterson, an Ecologist and Southwest PEER Director. “So-called motorized game retrieval is an unnecessary loophole that harms the land and undercuts enforcement efforts to keep ORVs on roads. We will continue to try to work with the Forest Service toward a better plan." Patterson is also an Arizona State Representative and Arizona hunter who hunts on the Kaibab National Forest.
The conservation groups appealed the decision based on several concerns, including failure to comply with the Travel Management Rule, the National Environmental Policy Act, a failure to look at an alternative that would offer resource protection, and a failure to properly consider the impacts of this project to wildlife, air and water quality, and how this project will impact the environment in light of global climate change.
The appeal decision does not make clear whether the Tusayan Ranger District will have to consider global warming and the “albedo effect” in the next steps of the planning process. The albedo effect, which has the potential to decrease critical water supplies in the already arid west, is an increase in snow melt rates when dust from off-road vehicles settles on snow pack. Dust can also have health impacts to people hiking, hunting, backpacking, or wildlife viewing in the area.
“We tried to work with the Tusayan Ranger District to develop a good plan that would protect natural resources, but we were ignored. We couldn’t support a plan that didn’t comply with the law, and the Forest Service has agreed with us,” said Tuell.