July 11, 2008

Proposal Cuts Road Use in Half



Use: Routes to favorite undeveloped campgrounds remain largely intact

More than half the existing roads on the Santa Fe National Forest will be closed to motorized use of all types and some user-created dirt bike trails will be shut down under a proposal released Thursday by the agency.

But off-road enthusiasts, ranchers, wood cutters, hunters and campers will still have enough roads to access their favorite spots on the 1.5 million-acre forest, according to Forest Supervisor Dan Jiron. "We believe through this big change, wildlife habitat will be protected," Jiron said. He added, "we have too many roads, and this is a significant reduction."

The proposed action is a big step toward the forest designating a system of roads and trails open to trucks, cars, all-terrain vehicles, dirt bikes and any other motorized use. Any roads and trails not on the final map will be closed to vehicular use. The public has 45 days to comment on the proposal, the first step in the National Environmental Policy Act process. A series of 13 public information meetings are planned around the region from July 28- Aug. 20.

All national forests are creating similar, so-called Travel Management Plans to control increasingly popular off-road recreation under a 2005 Forest Service rule. Unmanaged recreation was identified as one of four major threats to national forests, along with fire, loss of open space and invasive species.

Reaction to the proposal was swift and emotional in both directions.

Gordon Spingler, a longtime motorcyclist from Los Alamos, said the Forest Service was taking out a couple hundred miles of single- track trail that his Blackfeather Club had built over the years in the Jemez Mountains. The proposal calls for designating

105 miles of trails for motorcycles and all-terrain vehicles, and another

142 miles for motorcycles only.

"142 miles is simply not enough," Spingler said. "It sounds like a lot to a hiker or a mountain biker. But we can cover a fair amount of miles and we do, and that just isn't enjoyable. We can ride easily 100 miles in a day."

The proposal "simply will not be acceptable to the motorcycle family. We will do everything in our power to change it," Spingler said.

Kevin Stillman, a resident in the Jemez Mountains who vocally opposes motorcycle and other off-road use in the area, said some good was done, but the plan needs a lot of work.

The trails for motorcycles and ATVs aren't laid out well and are eroding, Stillman said. He said the map also still shows a "lot of (Forest Service) roads that go nowhere except to private property. Those roads end at private property lines that are marked and signed, but we still have problems with people trespassing."

On his first read through the proposal, Bryan Bird of the nonprofit advocacy group WildEarth Guardians called the proposal a "victory for quiet recreation."

"This is a huge step in the right direction for protecting water, wildlife and places of refuge," Bird said. He said once the final plan is finished next year, he hopes the forest will get the funds it needs to enforce the regulations and maintain the roads.

One of the more controversial roads -- Forest Road 379 -- from La Canada de Los Alamos up Glorieta Mesa, will be open only to street- legal vehicles, according to the proposed plan. Ranchers and other residents have repeatedly voiced concerns over the use of the road by ATVs.

With 4,924 miles of existing roads, the Santa Fe National Forest had the first or second highest density of roads per acre of any national forest in Arizona or New Mexico, depending on if wilderness areas are counted. The proposal calls for leaving 2,309 miles of road open to vehicular use.

Under the proposal, ranchers with private land or grazing allotments will still have access to reach their livestock, Jiron said. Woodcutters with a permit will be able to access certain roads not on the designated vehicle-use map.

Routes to reach favorite undeveloped campground areas are largely intact throughout the forest system, though people will be required to drive no further than 150 feet off the main roads in most areas.

Pinon pickers can still get to favorite pinon areas, but they may not be able to drive right up to the trees they want to harvest from.

Currently, almost the entire forest is open to cross-country motorized travel except in the wilderness areas and a few other locations. Under the proposed action, only 50 acres will be open to cross-country travel, including an area in the Jemez already used for an annual motocross event.

The Forest Service is mailing out notices of the proposed action to 11,000 people, including property owners and those who attended meetings on the issue last year. The agency has worked on the proposed action for two years. Comment received now will help the Forest Service draft alternative actions under NEPA for further public comment in a few months. A final Travel Management Plan won't be finished until 2009 or later.

Contact Staci Matlock at 470-9843

or [email protected]

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