Car campers and drivers headed to hiking and biking trails will have new rules restricting where they can drive and camp in Coconino National Forest starting May 1.
The forest is closing a little more than half its forest roads and banning cross-country motorcycle, vehicle and all-terrain vehicle use as part of a 2005 U.S. Forest Service directive to limit off-road driving in the nation’s forests.
A little more than 3,000 miles of roads and some 20.5 miles of motorcycle-only trails will remain open.
It won’t be obvious to motorcyclists and drivers, though, what roads are going to remain open or closed.
There won’t be boulders blocking the way, or “closed” signs.
Instead, drivers will need to know where they are on a map (paper or electronic), and whether the road is open.
“Everything’s going to be closed unless designated ‘open’ on the map,” said Mike Dechter, National Environmental Policy Act coordinator for the Coconino National Forest.
MAPS HOLD KEY
The idea is that a “closed” sign could be cut down and tossed aside by someone intent on getting somewhere, whereas these plans might be more straightforward in enforcing.
Law enforcement officers plan to show people what’s happening on maps and give warnings ahead of any fines or tickets, but the officers have the discretion to give tickets, too.
Coconino National Forest had 4.3 million visitors as of the most recent annual survey, but a majority of those people were just driving through.
The U.S. Forest Service directed each national forest in 2005 to restrict driving across meadows or the forests at large, saying it was damaging the forests.
As part of that, each forest had to decide what would count as a road, what would be closed, and how to handle activities like car camping, firewood gathering and elk retrieval.
The Coconino National Forest held public meetings in 2006 and repeatedly sought public comment.
Ultimately, the Coconino plans to allow camping within 300-foot corridors on either side of the road for about 600 miles of forest roads (20 percent of the roads left open), and within 30 feet of the road in most other areas.
The Cinder Lake off-roading area will remain open.
NEW MOTORCYCLE TRAILS
Motorcycle riders repeatedly voiced discontent with the plans, saying they would be left very little room to ride.
The Forest Service is proposing two new trails — one near Cornville and one running from near Flagstaff’s airport to Munds Park — to address some of those complaints.
“They seem to be realizing the plan that they signed doesn’t do good enough,” said Brian Hawthorne, who represents a group that advocated for more vehicle access for recreation.
He also says the Forest Service is doing the right thing in closing redundant roads leading to the same points.
Firewood gatherers will have permission to drive out to cut wood, but not to look for it.
Elk hunters retrieving big game will be permitted to used motorized vehicles to retrieve elk in areas of the forest west of Lake Mary Road and northwest of the San Francisco Peaks, but not in the areas closer to Flagstaff or east of Lake Mary Road.
The plans have sparked some local controversy, with conservationists generally praising them and a former and current sheriff opposed.
Coconino County Sheriff Bill Pribil’s office gets more complaints about all-terrain vehicles than any other issue in the summer, he said.
People call him about riders stacked two or three to an all-terrain vehicle, speeding, or cutting across private land.
He thinks that’s going to increase with motorcyclists and all-terrain vehicles sharing less ground.
“I do believe they’re closing too many roads and some of these roads could be converted to ATV roads or trails,” Pribil said.
GOOD FOR THE FOREST
The Center for Biological Diversity has firmly disagreed, and so does Dechter.
He says this will be good for the forest into the future, end practices that have created 100 to 200 new miles of motorized trails on the forest each year, and set new norms.
“We’re not going to be making criminals out of the average family,” he said. “We’re trying to provide incentives for them to do the right thing.”
Cyndy Cole can be reached at 913-8607 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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