Tucson — The Forest Service is releasing plans for managing off-road vehicles across Arizona and New Mexico, which, if done right, would protect millions of acres of land after decades of mismanagement. But if they fail to focus on protecting wildlife habitat and watersheds from fragmentation and erosion, the long-overdue plans could be profoundly damaging, leaving thousands of miles of unneeded roads on the ground and wreaking havoc on forest ecosystems.
According to Cyndi Tuell, Southwest conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, Arizona, these plans could provide the protection for wildlife that is required by law. “The Cibola and Santa Fe national forests in New Mexico have taken good first steps toward protecting natural resources; they’ve identified thousands of miles of unnecessary, often illegal roads that are causing erosion and fragmenting habitat,” said Tuell. “But several forests appear to be ignoring both good science and the law, developing plans that will allow the further degradation of our forests.”
The Santa Fe National Forest is planning to reduce the number of harmful roads by more than 2,000 miles, while the Cibola is cutting open roads by nearly half across most ranger districts. Both forests are accepting public comment on their plans now. By contrast, some forests, mainly in Arizona, are planning to leave vast swaths of land open to continued destruction and harassment of native wildlife by allowing off-road travel by elk hunters to retrieve downed elk. “This could facilitate the continued spread of invasive plant species that are often associated with wildfires,” said Kim Crumbo of the Grand Canyon Wildlands Council. “Most forests in Arizona and two forests in New Mexico are considering this exception to the ban on cross-country ORV use."
In Southwestern forests, few areas outside designated wilderness are further than one mile away from open roads, meaning allowing hunters to travel a mile from roads to retrieve carcasses would open virtually the entire forest to cross-country driving. The Arizona Game and Fish Department asserts that hunters should be allowed to use ORVs to pick up elk because the majority of hunters are considered too weak to retrieve game without help from a motorized vehicle.
Arizona State Representative Daniel Patterson, himself a hunter and outdoorsman and Southwest director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), is concerned about the position the Forest Service and Arizona Game and Fish have taken. “For the U.S. Forest Service and the Arizona Game and Fish Department to compromise wildlife habitat because they believe hunters are unwilling or unable to retrieve game the old-fashioned way shows the government’s priorities are wrong.”
Sandy Bahr, chapter director of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter, noted that most forests are not adequately considering the impacts the proposed plans in light of climate change and drought. “The Forest Service needs to do a better job of looking at how these plans will help or harm the forests in terms of climate change,” said Bahr. Some forests acknowledge that climate change could reduce the ability of rare plant populations to adapt to changes in climate. “These are the same plant populations at risk from motorized cross-country uses that will continue if motorized game retrieval is allowed,” said Bahr.
While ORV plans in the Southwest are hit-or-miss when it comes to protecting natural resources, they are better than plans in other western states. In California some forests are designating nearly every existing route on the ground for motorized uses, and the Fremont-Winema National Forest in Oregon initially had the highest road density and route mileage in the country, with more than 12,000 miles of road on the ground. (That Forest reduced the number of open roads in its decision to just over 6,500 miles — still one of the highest open road densities in the country.)
Forests in New Mexico and Arizona are generally developing better plans because they are conducting a preliminary step called “travel analysis.” This step requires the Forest Service to look at every road in its system and rank the road’s risks and values and decide if the road is important for accessing the forest while at the same time protecting natural resources. Nationally, only those forests in Arizona and New Mexico are consistently completing this first step, known as “Part A,” or travel analysis, before they move on to ORV planning, known as “Part B.”
While Part A helps to provide better plans overall, it does not address the issues related to habitat protection and enforcement related to what amounts to unfettered cross-country travel associated with game retrieval. Most conservation groups support allowing disabled persons the opportunity to retrieve game using motorized assistance.
Bryan Bird of WildEarth Guardians noted that “The result of conducting travel analysis in forests in Arizona and New Mexico is that they are forced to acknowledge the number of roads on the ground in all forests is out of control.”