At Wednesday's Southwest County Commission Alliance meeting, held in Deming, commissioners determined the group's priorities, which were approved later in the meeting.
During public input, Dan Lorimier, Sierra Club Rio Grande Chapter conservation coordinator, said he knew the alliance's agenda "is not fully in accord with that of the environmentalists, but I do appreciate what you're doing. You need to express your opinions. I appreciate the opportunity to talk to you."
During discussion and action regarding SWCCA's priorities, commissioners voiced what they considered priorities for the group.
Hidalgo County Commissioner Darr Shannon said she believed one priority should be private property rights in general, with none taken away.
Catron County Commissioner Richard McGuire, who moderated the meeting in the absence of Chairman Gabriel Ramos, said the group opposes the Travel Management Plan and the Mexican gray wolf recovery program. "Catron County's only economies left are cattle and hunting."
"Another extremely important priority is the reconstruction of the Catwalk," Shannon said. "It is a violation of private property rights because the closure causes economic distress."
Luna County Commissioner Javier Diaz said he wished to demand that anything new coming out of the Forest Service and other federal agencies should follow the codes set long ago to include and participate with counties. "For instance, don't bring in a new species, without talking to us."
Catron County Commission Glyn Griffin concurred that the "newly discovered" Mexican garter snake is an issue.
Shannon said it would also be a private property issue.
Diaz asked that procuring water for the human species be a priority.
Grant County Commissioner Ron Hall, attending for Ramos, said he knew Grant County was in accord with the group's stance on the TMP, the Arizona Water Settlements Act and the Catwalk.
"I see the loud minority overpowering the silent majority," Hall said. "Those of us who campaign know what the majority wants or we wouldn’t be in office. I got my marching orders from the voters and that's what we are supporting."
"The minority says we are supposed to represent all the citizens," Griffin said. "We represent 3,500 citizens in our county, not the 35,000 environmentalists all over the country."
Discussion ensued on whether an additional letter should be sent to the Forest Service concerning the Catwalk.
Hall said Grant County depends in part on tourism, and many visitors "go on up to the Catwalk. When they close the Gila Cliff Dwellings, it also impacts us."
Next on the agenda was Gila National Forest Public Affairs Officer Andrea Martinez. She began by saying the westernmost trail system, impacted by last year's Whitewater-Baldy Fire, and trails around the Silver Fire are closed. "We hope to open them before hunting season and after the monsoon. During the monsoon, trees fall and debris covers trails. On the western part, key trails have been cleaned out, but after the monsoon more work will need to be done. We are limited with resources and people resources. It may be that some trails continue to be closed. We are aware of hunting season and want to support hunters and outfitters."
Shannon asked why if it were a wilderness and trees fall, "isn't that what people want—the natural beauty of fallen trees and trails that turn into gulleys? Except then they get lost, and it costs millions to rescue them."
"I consider myself the link to the community," Martinez said. "I'm objective about opinions. My job is not as a change agent, but to provide facts. Yours is one perspective. Another is public safety. There are a lot of hazards after a fire. We are a litigious society, so public safety is important."
"If it's a true wilderness, why are there kept trails?" Shannon asked.
"Around Mogollon and Turkey Creek, a few years back, a group was camping and a tree fell on the camper and killed a person," Martinez said. "As a public agency, we have to consider safety."
Shannon suggested having people sign a hold harmless. "It's a shame people are kept out because the trails aren't kept."
Diaz asked rhetorically why there is so much litigation. "Who do we elect? We elect lawyers. They solidify their jobs by picking people to be their sound off and some are environmentalists. There is no respect from people who choose these agendas. If there is no respect from them, I will choose not to respect them."
Martinez switched topics to the Travel Management Plan. "There has been a delay in the environmental impact statement because of the Silver Fire. The people, including biologists, geologists and archaeologists, are intimately involved in the burned area emergency response team. We expect the final EIS at the end of August, in September or even later. We are hoping to have it out as soon as possible." She said anyone with questions about the TMP should contact Lisa Mizuno, who is the expert who has been working on the TMP.
Diaz asked that Mizuno speak to the Luna County Commission. "We have a lot of avid hikers, who spend money in Grant and Catron counties. I also question the reseeding. Why is it only 10 percent of the burned area? And the Catwalk—if I ran my business the way the federal government runs the Catwalk, I would be broke. What is the thought process?"
Martinez said the TMP is a big change. "I am a native and I consider myself well in tune with locals, and no one likes change. The travel management plan is to keep the forest open, but to manage the roads for motorized traffic. You can't go cross-country unless you walk. The travel management plan manages motorized roads. Most roads to be closed are small portions of roads off the major roads."
"We think more roads are being closed," Hall said. "You would have to leave people only on corridors, so the forest is no longer open. I understand abuse. Has there been abuse? You bet! Motorized is important. I understand there will be no signs up for citizens to know where the roads can't be used."
"Key travel routes will be signed," Martinez said. "It will be the responsibility of the public to be informed. We will take the process of education to the public and to Forest Service personnel. I have to come up with a fact sheet. It will take time for all of us to understand the travel management plan. Law Enforcement will have to understand that it will take time."
"How will they enforce if someone is on a road where they are not supposed to be?" Hall asked.
"We have four law enforcement officers, but they cannot be everywhere," Martinez said.
"If a person is cited, will it be to federal court, making them have to go to Las Cruces or Albuquerque?" Hall asked. "I hope there is some common sense used. It's too bad decisions are made by someone in D.C., who made the rules, but has never been to the Gila."
Martinez said the directive to form travel management plans went out to the forests in 2005 or 2006. "Each forest and grassland was told to determine its own travel management plan. We started soliciting comments. A big part of the decision comes from public comments."
"We are the silent majority," Hall said. "We are our own worst enemy. We don't have the time or money to go to Santa Fe or to D.C. We are working."
Donna Stevens, Upper Gila Watershed Alliance executive director, stood, apologized for being late because of going to the wrong building, but asked if she could give public input. She was told no.
Martinez said her participation with the forest management team shows that local relations are important. "County involvement is part of our conversations. We've tried."
Diaz said the decision is already made and imposed with the majority being excluded. "You need to go back, educate and be sensible with what impacts the majority."
"The travel management plan is not to keep people out of the forest, but to keep them on the corridors," Martinez said. "We are in the formal process. The preferred alternative is middle of the road, closing some roads, but not a lot. We have had a lot of public involvement. The intent is not to keep people out."
Shannon asked if all forests are driven to the same exact result.
"Personnel from the national office told each forest and grassland to take into consideration its own unique situations," Martinez said."
"I speak out of fear about what could happen," Hall said. "I hope Kelly Russell had heard us. She is a good person. We know there is going to be change, but not to be able to use trailers and campers except right along the roads? It's a way of life we've enjoyed. I came in 1965. A lot who speak on the other side don't understand what we've enjoyed. I understand the abuse, but areas are closed because of it. We have to do pushups because someone else abused it. The decision is not from the people who make a living. They don't want it closed."
Griffin asked about rules concerning abuse. "My opinion is that it's just an excuse to close the forest down. Our freedoms are being taken away."
"When there is any closures, we have regulations that allow us to close an area," Martinez. "We couldn't close the forest. That has never been an agenda of the Gila National Forest, but yes, it is a big change."
"A guy in New York or D.C. has as much say as the people here," Griffin continued.
"That is true, because it is a national forest," Martinez said. "But the majority of the respondents to our call for comments have come from people within 350 miles of the Gila National Forest. I like one-to-one. I suggest you talk individually with Kelly."
"If you or she can't say it in front of us, then it's not true," Shannon said. "Tell it to us like it really is. Individual talking just gives room for more lying. Don't play it both sides. Back to the trails in the wilderness. If they were kept open and allowed cattle and logging, then trees couldn't fall on a measly person."
"The Washington office gave us a framework for the travel management plan," Martinez said. "We decide it here. I haven't been in any meetings where we've lied or been deceitful. I am proud of my integrity."
The rest of Martinez's report will be covered in a following article.