US Forest Service determining which dirt roads to leave open to motorized vehicles
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Hundreds of miles of dirt roads and trails cut through northern New Mexico's mountains. The hard part is deciding which ones to keep open and which to close.
It's a scenario that's playing itself out across the country as the U.S. Forest Service tries to designate by 2010 a system of motorized routes that will provide recreational opportunities while still protecting America's natural resources.
In northern New Mexico, off-road enthusiasts and environmentalists — typically arch enemies in the travel management debate — have found something to agree on. But it won't make the process any easier for federal land managers.
Both sides say the Carson National Forest is going about travel management planning in an unusual way, one they fear will leave the public without a chance to comment on potential impacts to soil, water quality, wildlife and recreational access.
"I'm concerned because there's really nothing the public can look at and say 'Oh, the impacts to water quality are going to be this, so yeah I support it,' or 'No, I don't.' No matter what side of the issue you're on, you don't have any information," said Cyndi Tuell, southwestern conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity.
At issue is the proposed action that the Carson forest released in July. It calls for closing nearly 270 miles of existing roads to motor vehicles on three ranger districts, prohibiting cross-country travel and adding corridors for camping. But absent is a comprehensive environmental analysis of the proposal, critics say.
Carson officials said Friday they are working on an environmental assessment. However, the public likely won't have a chance to see the document until after the comment period ends Aug. 15.
While federal law gives forest officials some discretion when deciding whether public comment is needed on an environmental assessment, many forests have analyzed the impacts of their travel plans, prepared reports and have given people time to weigh in.
Critics say they are aware of only one other forest that took a similar path to the one being taken on the Carson. On the Sawtooth National Forest in Idaho, officials spent a couple years gathering public comment so they could develop a plan for designating which roads and trails would be open to motorcycles, four-wheelers and other off-highway vehicles.
However, no official comment period was held on the plan's environmental assessment, said Brad Brooks, a regional conservation associate with The Wilderness Society in Idaho.
"I think it really creates a lot of distrust when they won't even allow a simple comment period on an environmental assessment," he said. "In the mind of the public, if there's nothing to hide, then why not let people at least have a transparent process."
Officials on both the Sawtooth and the Carson say they put "extreme amounts of effort" into getting stakeholders involved early in the process so they could come up with plans they believed addressed the public's needs and concerns.
Jack Carpenter, a member of the Carson's travel management team, said the proposed action released last month includes alternatives that the public can comment on.
"We're trying to cover a lot of things," he said. "We're saying, 'will this project affect a lot of people? And if so, how?' This is what we have come up with so far, and if we're wrong, tell us. That's what we want them to do, tell us if we're wrong."
Like the Center for Biological Diversity, Joanne Spivack, past president of the New Mexico Off Highway Vehicle Alliance, believes the forest isn't providing enough information on the impacts of the proposal for the public to make substantive comments. She equates the situation to a jury deciding a case before hearing the evidence.
Spivack added that filing comments is what gives the public standing to appeal and ultimately sue.
"The Carson appears to be engineering this so citizens are left with no alternative except to file an appeal," she said. "This is a lengthy and intimidating process."
While forest officials contend they have worked hard to be inclusive and listen to the public, travel management planning has proven divisive across the nation.
In California, for example, there have been plenty of public meetings but concern still looms over interpretation of the travel management rule and the impacts to recreation and the environment.
A recent study done by the Institute for Environmental Negotiation at the University of Virginia found that given the high stakes perceived by forest users, related economic interests and cooperating agencies, conflict is natural and inevitable.
However, it's not the job of the Forest Service to make everyone happy, said Frank Dukes, director of the institute.
"The job is to apply the law and to do so in a way that meets both the letter and the spirit of the law, and the spirit does say that the Forest Service is supposed to involve the communities that are affected by their decisions," Dukes said.
"It is a hugely challenging situation for a lot of people," he added.
While people have only two more weeks to comment on the Carson's proposal, Carpenter said that doesn't mean the routes will be set in stone. The Carson, like other forests, plans to review its transportation system every year.
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