For Immediate Release, June 15, 2009
Cyndi Tuell, Center for Biological Diversity, (520) 444-6603
Sandy Bahr, Sierra Club - Grand Canyon Chapter, (602) 253-8633 or (602) 999-570
Kim Crumbo, Grand Canyon Wildlands Council, (928) 638-2304
Daniel Patterson, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, (520) 906-2159
Off-road Vehicle Plan Threatens to Destroy Public Lands Near Grand Canyon
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz.— Conservation groups appealed the Tusayan Ranger District’s off-road vehicle plan today, citing the fact that the plan puts the forest’s archeological sites and wildlife habitat at serious risk, as well as the nearby Grand Canyon National Park. The Center for Biological Diversity, the Grand Canyon Wildlands Council, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, and the Sierra Club have repeatedly asked the Forest Service to protect this area, but the district instead moved ahead with a decision that allows off-road vehicles to continue to damage the forest.
“We are appealing this decision in order to force the Forest Service to do its job. They should be focused on protecting our public lands and ensuring that future generations have the freedom to enjoy a quiet, healthy forest,” said Cyndi Tuell, Southwest conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity. “We are particularly concerned that this plan will allow off-road driving throughout the majority of the forest, putting wildlife in prime elk habitat in jeopardy. It just doesn’t make sense.”
Some of the Southwest’s most valuable elk hunting is found in the Tusayan Ranger District, which borders the Grand Canyon National Park to the south. According to conservationists, allowing hunters to drive for one mile off every open road to pick up their downed elk will not only harm the hunting experience but also harm the habitat of sensitive species such as the northern goshawk, American pronghorn, mountain lion, and black bear.
The Travel Management Rule requires the Forest Service to ban cross-country motorized travel to protect habitat for sensitive species and watershed quality. Conservation groups proposed a plan that would have offered habitat protection, increased quiet recreation opportunities, and allowed hunters the chance at a classic, unspoiled elk-hunting experience.
“This plan fails to protect wildlife habitat and we are left with no option but to appeal this poor decision,” said Kim Crumbo, conservation director for the Flagstaff-based Grand Canyon Wildlands Council. “We are committed to do what it takes to ensure this forest is protected.”
The groups are also concerned about the so-called “albedo effect”: Dust from off-road vehicles has the potential to increase snow-melt rates, decreasing critical water supplies in the already arid West. Dust also has a localized impact on anyone who might be hiking, hunting, backpacking, or wildlife viewing in the area. The coarse particulates that make up dust are inhaled by those individuals and can affect the heart and lungs and increase respiratory symptoms, irritation of the airways, coughing, difficulty breathing, and more. The elderly, children, and those with respiratory or other health issues are at greatest risk from particulate pollution.
“The risks associated with off-road vehicle activities are well known and well documented,” said Sandy Bahr, chapter director for the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter. “Our natural heritage is at risk with this plan and it is incredibly unfortunate the Forest Service has chosen to favor the off-road vehicle industry to the detriment of this and future generations.”
The lack of enforcement is also well documented, yet the off-road plan for the Tusayan Ranger District contains few provisions for ensuring compliance with the new rules other than relying on the public to comply. A 2007 study by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and Rangers for Responsible Recreation found that off-road violations account for most law-enforcement problems on federal lands. The groups appealing this decision are concerned that the Tusayan Ranger District will not be able to prevent illegal off-road use from spilling into the Grand Canyon National Park, which could destroy wildlife habitat, ancient archeological sites and could disrupt visitors to the Grand Canyon.
“We tried to work with the Forest Service to develop a good plan that would protect natural resources, but we were ignored. We can’t support a plan that doesn’t comply with the law,” said Tuell.
The conservation groups are appealing the decision on several bases, including failure to comply with the Travel Management Rule and the National Environmental Policy Act, failure to look at an alternative that would offer resource protection, and failure to properly consider the impacts of this project on wildlife, air and water quality, and global climate change. The groups are asking the Forest Service to withdraw its decision and develop appropriate analysis of the environmental impacts of this project.
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 has $43.5 million in maintenance backlog. The Williams Ranger District is expected to release an analysis of its plan later this year, along with the Coconino National Forest. The North Kaibab Ranger District has yet to begin its off-road vehicle planning. The Tusayan Ranger District decision is available on the Forest Service Web site.
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.