By Mary Alice Murphy
At a special meeting this morning, July 1, 2014, Grant County commissioners sat around a couple of tables with Gila National Forest Supervisor Kelly Russell and Silver City District Ranger Russell Ward.
"This is an open meeting for us to discuss with the Forest Service the Travel Management Plan," Chairman Brett Kasten said. "No decisions will be made. We will ask questions of each other."
Kyle Johnson, Grant County resident, asked if there would be public comment. Kasten replied that there would be no public comment. "If you want to ask questions of the Forest Service, I ask you to initiate your own meeting."
Donna Stevens, Upper Gila Watershed Alliance coordinator, said to Kasten that she had left him two messages, but received no answers, to which Kasten replied that, if they were on his county office phone, he had just returned from Arizona that morning. Stevens said she had also spoken to Denisha Lucero, the administrative assistant, who said she "thought there might be public comment." Kasten said she misunderstood.
Commissioner Ron Hall said what he would really like to see is a close look at the document of decision, which is open for comment. "I made a lot of notes while I was reading through the document. I would like the opportunity to look at specifics. I don't know how far along you are in the process, but there is a lot of data missing. I would like to reconcile this before the lawsuits happen, which I don't want to see."
Russell said the process began in 2005, and a lot of meetings, with the public and with the commissioners, were held. "We worked hard to get input from the counties. I'm sorry you didn't feel like you were part of the process."
"I called twice and got no response," Hall said. "I wanted to negotiate. I would rather work through these problems in an amenable way, so you don't have to face a court. There is the lack of data. And the data there is admits there is no need for change." He said the reasoning for closing roads was from assumptive data, because there was only incomplete data and not enough data to make a decision.
"It's interesting that the majority of those who commented are self-identified as white, while half our population is Hispanic," Hall said. "The Health Council has no problem getting data. They have a different way of collecting it by going to public meetings and events, but it is effective. This decision was made with incomplete or missing data. I think we can work things out, unless we're beyond negotiation."
Russell said the document is in the 45-day comment period and anyone can appeal. "If the appeal is not successful, it will go to the district office, and then if not successful, it can go to court. We put in a lot of time and effort for comment on how to best serve the public and manage the forest for the public and resources. We have acknowledged that we won't make everyone happy. We looked at county comments. We felt we had used the best available science."
Commissioner Gabriel Ramos asked if the appeal could only be on comments already presented. Russell said anyone could appeal on anything in the document.
"Can we get the project record index of who turned in comments and what they said?" Ramos asked.
"We have received a lot of FOIAs (Freedom of Information Act requests)," Russell said, "but we have to redact all the email addresses. We have nine years of data in the Project Record Index. I think most of it is available right now, because a lot has been redacted."
County Planner Anthony Gutierrez, who also sat in on the meeting, said: "I know the county, myself and the County Commission wrote a document that the Forest Service requested for our comments. We sent the comments but never received documentation that our comments were addressed."
"We consider all comments," Russell said.
"As local governments, we felt we should have been at the table to cooperate with you," Ramos said. "We requested a meeting with you, right before the furloughs. We never got contacted after the furloughs. We requested a second meeting and tried to reach out to you again. Individually in Grant, Catron, Luna and Hidalgo counties, it never happened. It's disappointing to me. I let Mr. Cal Joyner of the Forest Service know about it and he said he will personally take care of the appeal process."
"We tried to schedule meetings with the Southwest County Commission Alliance, but the furloughs happened, then several meetings were canceled," Russell said.
"The last meeting was held after the decision was made," Ramos said. "I have another question. How do you plan to monitor to make sure the plan is abided by?"
"The plan will not take place until next spring," Russell said. "We will let people know what has taken place. The law enforcement officers will not come down hard to start with."
"Will you have signs or berms closing the roads?" Ramos asked. "It's hard to read the roads on the topo maps. It's not fair to give a citation if someone just took a wrong turn."
Hall pointed out that if someone is cited, they will have to go to federal magistrate court in Las Cruces.
"We will issue free maps for everyone," Russell said. "They will be called motorized vehicle maps, showing where motorized vehicles can be operated. It won't be before next spring, because we still have to sort out what type of maps are best. Most folks want to know where they can go legally and recreate."
"You're nice about this and letting people know," Ramos said. "What if the next supervisor is hard on people? I'm here to protect the public. I feel we need a better system. I talked to a few Forest Service staff members and some of them are against the plan, because they thought it was going to be 980 miles closed."
"We are closing more than 1,200 miles, with 300 miles of roads only for administrative use and by permittees," Russell said. "We show that 3,334 miles of roads are open with about 1,200 closed."
"It was an open forest," Ramos said. "I personally don't think people should drive anywhere they want, but it's hard to know whether a road is already closed or decommissioned, if it's not on the map."
"We didn't consider the already closed roads, just the open ones," Russell said.
"What about game retrieval, if you can't get off the road?" Ramos asked. "You will be cited by the Forest Service if you get off the road or by Game & Fish for waste of game (if you don't retrieve it)."
"We did that at the request of Game & Fish," Russell said.
"Game & Fish blames it on you," Ramos said.
Kasten said his questions were more technical. "What is a maintenance level 1 road?"
"It's a designation for a closed or decommissioned road," Ward replied.
"So the least amount of maintenance?" Kasten clarified. "Do we have documents showing which roads were already closed? How did you determine what was open and what was closed?"
"We have a full series of databases of roads that were closed or decommissioned. The data goes back many years and is reflected in the databases of the engineers."
"I'm confused about how you can have closed roads in an open forest," Kasten commented, "but that doesn't matter. What is a motorized trail?"
"A motorized trail, we're looking at an ATV trail of 50 inches in width or less," Ward said.
"On the Travel Management Rule was that an order?" Kasten asked.
"I thought it was for us to look at where we could manage motorized travel," Russell said. "It was up to each national forest to determine how to use the rule."
"So there was no predetermination?" Kasken asked.
"Just that cross-country was not allowed," Russell said. "We have to objectively look at each road. Many of those closed are less than ½ mile long, and were maybe left over from logging. We also have to look at archaeological sites and artifacts and wildlife management. There were some longer roads that were closed, but they had other access points. The longest closed was 7.6 miles, but it may not be in Grant County. These maps (on the table in front of them) are just of Grant County. Ninety-six percent of all the non-wilderness area will be within two miles of a road."
'That doesn't help the disabled," Ramos said.
"We made sure we didn't go against the Americans with Disability Act," Russell said.
"I'm upset you don't have more handicapped access," Ramos said.
"In Grant County, we have the largest number of motorized ATV trails in the forest," Russell said. "That was at the behest of the ATV community."
Interim County Manager Abigail Robinson asked how many roads were maintenance level 1, meaning no maintenance.
Russell didn't have the exact number, but said some may be rehabbed to go back to nature, "but we don't have a lot of money for that. The ones open for administrative use will also be used by permittees. We have no intention of getting rid of motorized vehicles. There is a lot of recreational use appropriate on the forest, as long as it does not irreparably damage the resource."
"If you are closing roads, it should be for something like protecting the aquifer, but not shut down for the public, while also allowing the permittees to use roads," Ramos said. "That's discrimination."
"That's just a few identified roads," Russell said.
"That became a significant issue," Ward said. "We removed the vast majority of the roads. A lot of areas are landlocked by private land, so they need access, but not public access. They will have to be allowed the use to take care of their livestock, but not to permit an outfitter to use the area. We'll have to manage abuses."
Hall said the Forest Service had alluded to the fact that 2 percent of the users cause the problems. "It's too bad we have to do this because of them, rather than leaving the forest for the 98 percent who use it responsibly.
Russell said most laws refer to the rule breakers.
"I think it's best to collect intelligence on where the abuse and damage happen," Hall said. "Why not just put someone out there to watch and cite."
"Most folks want to know where they can go legally," Russell said. "We had to do something about the ones doing resource damage and the forest didn't need to be open."
Hall asked about camping corridors, because he likes to pull the trailer out to camp. "I clean out the rings and tidy up the site before and after. I'm a responsible camper. I foresee a lot of trailers in one spot, which is not why I want to camp."
Russell said the forest had the option to designate camping corridors. "A lot of people like to camp as a group. But you can also pick a spot and camp. We may identify some areas. We need to tweak that.
Hall said he didn't see his favorite camping spot anymore on the map, off Redrock Road. Ward said there was a series of ATV trails there.
Hall also asked about Meadow Creek, which was another camping spot that was closed.
"When we started the analysis," Ward said, "we were overlaying heritage sites and riparian areas. Because of the burn on Signal Peak, we're concerned about what will happen in Meadow Creek. We will likely keep it closed, because we're expecting high flows from the burn. It wouldn't be good to have campers in the tight canyon."
Kasten said Gold Canyon was a nice little day trip. "If people acted responsibly, we wouldn't have to do this."
Gutierrez said his concern was economic, because of tourism, economic development and the economic impact of the forest. "When I was reading the economic impact statement, it seemed like it disqualified gas and food from quantifying the impact. It's beyond me why you would disqualify those. The only thing you're quantifying is large things, like ATV sales, but the gross receipts on small things are disqualified. That's why I think your economic impact statement is flawed.
"The social and economic impacts are complex," Russell said. "We used a contractor for that."
"You didn't cite them," Gutierrez said. "Local governments, the chamber, the Visitor Center, they all advertise to sell the forest. I think you should quantify those impacts. So many things are disqualified. I've never seen a model like that."
"We're just as concerned that we don't want to negatively impact the economy," Russell said. "We are still allowing plenty of motorized uses."
"Your document says some studies are not completed, and you will survey some at a later date," Hall said. "Will they be open for public discussion?"
"Some may be cultural resources," Russell said. "We'll be coming back and issuing the decisions in our documents if they require changes in road status, and we have to have public comments."
"This is the first time the Forest Service has been identified as a cooperating agency," Gutierrez said. "The forest has a cooperating agreement with the county to maintain roads. Then the road classification system was developed to show what type maintenance the roads receive. Because of your maintenance budget you came to us and asked us if we could maintain at a higher level. The county is more than willing to assist. We also did a huge GIS move to establish a database. We assisted everywhere we could and we're willing to participate. This is the only time, when we asked about our concerns that we met with no communication back. It should be the same ground rules or was courtesy not adhered to? This is the first meeting you asked us to be a cooperating agency."
Ramos asked about the forest's maintenance budget, to which Russell replied, it was enough to maintain about 500 miles of roads, "but that can change with floods, so we have to move the money to urgent needs."
"The document says the maintenance budget would require $4 million," Ramos said. "There is never enough money to maintain all the roads made by people for different uses. We, the public, the hunters, maintain some roads ourselves, such as cutting down downed trees."
"With only enough to maintain 500 miles, that's why we've appreciated the cooperative agreements," Russell said.
Ramos said he thought hunting was not quantified correctly in the economic impact statement. "New Mexico State University has done quantification of hunting benefits."
"We have a wilderness area, which I support whole heartedly," Hall said, "but I don't want to de facto create another wilderness area."
"We have no plan to create another wilderness area," Russell replied.
Hall gave to Russell and Ward a document written by Bill Rogers, "which has a lot of good information. I think you'll see some changes that need to be done," Hall said. "I have to trouble removing the short appendages that go nowhere off roads, where abuse may be happening. You are basing an important document on assumptions. I would like you to look at this letter carefully."
"Do you have a draft of what is coming out in the next permit process?" Gutierrez asked.
"We are developing it over the next few months," Russell said.
Gutierrez pointed out that some people cut fuel wood for their families and others for commercial sales.
"These maps have the closed and decommissioned roads," Ward said. "We made them special for today," Russell said.
Ramos said he knew the appeals on the Santa Fe forest were all turned down and now a lawsuit has been filed.
"The Travel Management Plan can vary from place to place," Russell said. "We will schedule meetings with those appealing before it goes further. All the appeals go to the regional forester for the decision. We want to talk on all of these things."
Ramos said he wants to avoid the lawsuit process. "So do we," Russell said.
"I really want to work through this," Hall said. "I appreciate your talking with us and I look forward to resolving the issues."
Kasten said he wished that the commissioners and the forest personnel had sat down and discussed this earlier. "I don't think we're that far apart. But I wonder about the Game Commission and why only 300 feet for game retrieval."
"That 300 feet can be for camping, firewood gathering and game retrieval," Russell said.
"We've become friends, so I hope we can revisit the retrieval and a few roads," Kasten said. "I feel if they were surveyed, they would have been allowed to rise or fall on their own merits. I do not believe in an open forest. I think the natural values were taken into consideration at the highest level, but over the economic and cultural values."
"I have one more question," Ramos said. "What is the protocol for a missing person or an injured person?"
"We will always allow emergency access," Russell said. "We work with state police and search and rescue."
The meeting was adjourned.