Counties concerned with forest travel planning

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By Susan Montoya Bryan
The Associated Press

In a state where tourism is big business, leaders from New Mexico’s 33 counties want to make sure the federal government gives them a seat at the table as the U.S. Forest Service decides which roads and trails should be closed to motorized traffic.

County leaders voted Saturday to approve a resolution addressing the agency’s effort to establish travel management plans for millions of acres in New Mexico.

The resolution drafted by the New Mexico Association of Counties says the closing of some byways could have significant impacts for communities and any plan that doesn’t reflect collaboration with local governments shall be opposed.

Jon Paul Saari, the manager of Grant County, which encompasses the southern half of the famed Gila National Forest, said the rural communities that are scattered across the mountains depend on recreationists, hunters, anglers and guides.

“We’re tourism, and the thing that stays constant is people come here to enjoy our open spaces, our wilderness,” he said. “That’s where the county commission’s concern is. If you shut down access, how are these people going to get out there and enjoy what has been enjoyed for generations?”

Officials with the U.S. Forest Service’s Southwest region said they are aware of the resolution.

“We’ve done extensive public engagement and have worked with the local governments and counties as we’ve gone through travel management over the last several years,” said James Melonas, the agency’s county liaison. “That’s really a hallmark for the travel management process.”

Under a 2005 mandate, it was supposed to take the agency four years to decide which roads and trails throughout the nation’s vast network of forests and national grasslands should be designated for travel by motorcycles, four-wheelers and other backcountry vehicles.

Forests from Oregon to New Mexico and Arizona are still struggling to balance the demands of environmentalists, off-roaders, ranchers and local leaders.

Travel management plans are already in place across the Lincoln National Forest in southern New Mexico and some districts on the Carson and Cibola forests.

The plan for the Santa Fe forest spurred a lawsuit, and the Gila forest was preparing to release its final plan this spring.

Saari said the Forest Service has repeatedly said the process is open and that there’s room for adjustments.

“If it’s an open process, let’s take these roads one at a time and close them slowly and let’s close them right,” he said, noting that current proposals don’t call for any berms or other blockades for those roads and trails that would be off-limits.

Saari and others also questioned whether forest managers will be able to enforce the plans.

With the resolution, the association of counties is requesting that the travel plans consider the importance of access for everything from emergencies to resource management and the “customs and cultures of the communities and citizens of New Mexico.”

While the resolution doesn’t have any teeth, association executive director Paul Gutierrez said it makes a statement. He said he believes more cooperation with county governments in those areas where plans have yet to be formalized is possible.