For Immediate Release, May 04, 2009
Cyndi Tuell, Center for Biological Diversity, (520) 444-6603
Sandy Bahr, Sierra Club - Grand Canyon Chapter, (602) 253-8633
Kim Crumbo, Grand Canyon Wildlands Council, (928) 638-2304
Off-road Vehicle Plan Threatens Public Lands Near Grand Canyon
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz.— The Kaibab National Forest has finalized a plan for the Tusayan Ranger District that puts the nearby Grand Canyon National Park, as well the forest’s archeological sites and wildlife habitat, at serious risk. The Center for Biological Diversity and a broad coalition of local and national conservation organizations have asked the Forest Service to protect this area, but the district is moving ahead with a plan that largely maintains the status quo and allows off-road vehicles to continue to damage the forest.
Of particular concern is the fact that Forest Service wants to allow hunters to drive off-road vehicles through nearly the entire forest to pick up downed elk. “We understand the district wants to encourage elk hunting in this area, but this a dangerous and backwards approach,” said Cyndi Tuell, Southwest conservation advocate with the Center. “Opening up the entire forest to degradation for a select group of forest users is unwise, unfair, and unnecessary.”
The Tusayan Ranger District borders the Grand Canyon National Park to the south and contains some of the most sought-after elk-hunting grounds in the Southwest. However, it is also home to sensitive species such as the northern goshawk , American pronghorn, mountain lion, and black bear. Noise and dust from off-road vehicles will leave the Forest Service land, impacting visitors to the park. The Travel Management Rule requires the Forest Service to ban cross-country motorized travel to protect habitat for these species — as well as watershed quality — but does allow certain exceptions if they are applied “sparingly.” Rather than take the “sparingly” provision seriously, the Forest Service has approved a plan that opens up most of the forest to cross-country travel by hunters, claiming it will have “limited” negative impacts on the environment and failing to consider the impacts on other users.
A plan proposed by conservation groups, which would have gone much further to protect forest resources, was not even considered by the district. Of the alternatives the district had to choose from in deciding on the final plan, there was little difference in the number of miles of roads to be opened, and none of the plans considered prevented cross-country driving to pick up downed elk.
“The Forest Service is ignoring the consequences of decades of unregulated off-road vehicle use and didn’t even consider another approach,” said Kim Crumbo, conservation director for the Flagstaff-based Grand Canyon Wildlands Council. “The Forest Service has a duty to protect wildlife habitat and this plan utterly fails to do that. Given the lack of any real choice between the plans, we are not surprised, just disappointed.”
“This decision continues to expose the watershed, wildlife, and natural quiet of this forest to the well-known and well-documented risks associated with off-road vehicles,” said Sandy Bahr, chapter director for the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter. “The Forest Service has shirked its responsibility to ensure the long-term protection of our natural heritage. We are gravely disappointed in this plan, which favors the off-road vehicle industry to the detriment of future generations.”
The conservation groups also expressed concerns about the lack of enforcement. A 2007 study by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and Ranger for Responsible Recreation found that off-road violations account for most law-enforcement problems on federal lands. The fact that there is a single law-enforcement officer for the Kaibab, Coconino, and Prescott national forests, totaling over 2.85 million acres, adds to concerns that the Forest Service will be unable to prevent illegal off-road vehicle use from spilling out of the Tusayan Ranger District into the Grand Canyon National Park. The results, they say, would be destruction of not only wildlife habitat, but of ancient archeological sites and could disrupt visitors to the Grand Canyon.
“If other forests follow the poor example of the Tusayan Ranger District, our forests will be in real trouble,” said Tuell.
All national forests are required to limit motorized cross-country travel by the Travel Management Rule of 2005 to protect natural resources after more than 30 years of unregulated off-road vehicle use. National forests across the Southwest are acknowledging that they can afford to maintain just a fraction of their current road systems and in fact have billions of dollars worth of backlogged maintenance. This places our public lands at risk for habitat and watershed destruction and increases the risk to the public of driving on unsafe, unmaintained roads, which are often made more unsafe by off-road vehicle use.
The Kaibab National Forest can afford just 8 percent of its current system, according to its own analysis, and it has $43.5 million in maintenance backlog. The Williams Ranger District is expected to release an analysis of their plan later this year, along with the Coconino National Forest. The North Kaibab Ranger District has yet to begin its off-road vehicle planning.
Off-road vehicles have had a negative impact on hunting experiences in Arizona. A 2005 Arizona Game and Fish Department study found a majority of hunters (54 percent) thought off-road vehicles disturbed their hunting experience. Failure to draw a tag, urbanization, and lack of time were the only other barriers to hunting that ranked above having a hunt ruined by off-road vehicles.
From Tusayan RD EA 2008, page 33.
Map showing area of Tusayan Ranger District open for off-road, motorized elk retrieval. From Tusayan RD EA 2008, page 23.