Editor's Note: This is Part 2 of a multi-part series on the special meeting held by the Grant County Commission on Monday, Feb. 4. This article will cover the Gila National Forest update on the proposed Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Travel Management Plan.
Kelly Russell, Gila National Forest supervisor, led off the discussion by introducing Lisa Mizuno, GNF environmental coordinator and the lead on developing the travel management plan and Andrew Loescher, tech support for the PowerPoint presentation.
Russell thanked those who were in attendance at the standing room only meeting for showing interest in the issue.
"The National Forest Service has been managing the nation's forests for over 100 years," Russell said. "They are managed for multiple use. No decision has yet been made on the Travel Management Rule implementation. We intended to complete it last summer, but we were diverted by the (Whitewater-Baldy) fire, which involved many of our personnel.
"We have received over 2,000 comments and we consider every one," Russell continued.
Mizuno took over the history of the process.
"This PowerPoint will be posted later this week to the Gila National Forest website," Mizuno said. "The rule establishes a system of roads, trails and areas designated for motorized use. The intent is to sustain natural resource values through more effective management of motor vehicle use; enhance opportunities for motorized recreation experiences on National Forest System lands; address needs for access to National Forest System lands; and preserve areas of opportunity on each National Forest for non-motorized travel and experiences.
She said due to the increase in sales of all-terrain vehicles, "it has allowed people to go in areas we didn't think they could get to. One of our primary concerns is the health of the forest," Mizuno continued. She cited Executive Order 11644, which establishes policies and procedures "to ensure the use of off-road vehicles on public lands will be controlled and directed so as to protect the resources of those lands, to promote the safety of all users of those lands, and to minimize conflicts among the various uses of those lands." The executive order was later amended by EO 11989.
The Travel Management Rule was put out in 2004 and became effective December 2005. The intent of the rule is to standardize policies and procedures in national forests across the country. It prohibits the use of motorized vehicles off designated roads. As for comments about R.S. 2477 roads, the final rule states: "The exemption for a road or trail 'which an authorized officer has ascertained, for administrative purposes and based on available evidence, is within a public right-of-way for a highway, such as a right-of-way for a highway pursuant to R.S. 2477' has been removed from the definition for a road or trail under Forest Service jurisdiction in the final rule," because the Department of the Interior "does not want to give the appearance of establishing the validity of unresolved R.S. 2477 right-of-way claims in determining the applicability of this final rule."
Beginning in 2006, the Gila National Forest began its travel management plan process. Forty-six public meetings and open houses have been held, with the public viewing maps of various alternatives for the final plan.
"More than 900 people have attended these meetings, in addition to numerous individual meetings with permittees, residents, businesses and outfitters," Mizuno said. "We also held early meetings with the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the New Mexico Off-Highway Vehicle Alliance.
"We put it all together and came up with a draft proposal in 2008," she continued. "We gave the public the opportunity to comment. Prior to the workshops, materials were provided to the county commissioners of the four counties. In 2011, the proposed action was published in the Federal Register. This opened the Environmental Protection Act process. We posted flyers, paid for ads and held open houses from Lordsburg to Quemado to Las Cruces."
The result was receipt of more than 16,000 comments. "We identified the significant issues. The four main ones were: motorized routes, motorized dispersed recreation, motorized big game retrieval and the areas," she said. "Some comments wanted less; some wanted more."
After the 60-day comment period, the Gila National Forest notified stakeholders, and received 2,000 more comments. "Three-quarters of the comments came from within New Mexico; some from other states and some from foreign countries. Sixty percent were from four cities, and 42 percent of the comments were from Grant County."
"The Draft EIS comments were used to correct incomplete or incorrect information," Mizuno said. "We reconsidered certain routes and trails, as well as the miles open for public use."
She said majority of the roads the forest is proposing to close are at most 1.25 miles long, with some above three miles in length.
On forest dispersed camping corridors, "I think the majority are captured within the proposal," Mizuno said. "You can park within a camping vehicle at a distance of the length of the vehicle away from the road.
Camping in a tent or hiking in the forest, a user can go any distance. The rule is about how far a vehicle can go, not where it can camp."
"Today, the forest is responding to the 2,000 DEIS comments and starting to revise our reports and to revise the EIS," Mizuno said. "We are estimating completion this spring. When the document comes out, it will be open for a 45-day review period. After the decision is made, we will create a motor vehicle use map, with the public being able to make changes on it. The map will not go into effect when the map is published, but after changes are made.
"Yes, the map will be reviewed annually and changed if needed," she continued. "We may change it as a stand-alone project or part of other projects. There will be public input on any changes."
Russell said it has been a long process, and "I know most folks are ready for a decision. Once the decision is made, we will get input, but it may be part of another project."
"We want to make sure everyone realizes that public input is important to us," Russell continued.
Commissioner Ron Hall was the first commissioner to comment.
"I appreciate the work you have put into the mandate from somewhere else," Hall said. "I have read and studied the DEIS, and I have concerns. The forest is the land of many uses, but this plan will put ill-advised restrictions on the uses. I think it fails to address uses by all residents. People need to be considered in this plan. We're playing with the lives of and uses by Grant County residents. Grant County has resisted the Travel Management Plan. The New Mexico Association of Counties has resisted the TMP. Slow down. Let's work on these issues one at a time. Presenting all these issues is suffocating for residents.
"I'm really concerned about the map," Hall continued. "I'm also concerned about how enforcement will be done on 3.3 million acres."
"We do have law enforcement, six officers," Russell said. "We'll take it as it comes."
Hall asked where violators of the restrictions would be charged and heard. "If it's through the federal magistrate court, the violators would have to go to Las Cruces or Albuquerque. We don't know where the motorized vehicle corridors are."
"The cultural resource assessments are mostly done," Mizuno said. "The three year-phasing will be removed from the DEIS. Because of the sensitivity of cultural resources, the map will be different, but not by a great deal."
"You said you have four issues," Hall said. "If we can take each and discuss it thoroughly and use the community as part of the decision-making, it would be good. Putting it out all at once is mind-boggling."
Russell pointed out the process has taken seven years, and "we've tried hard to get the public involved. I don't think the issues are new or different. We'll continue to get input from the Commission."
"I'm not anti-forest or anti-federal government, and I appreciate your work," Hall concluded.
Commissioner Gabriel Ramos had his concerns, after thanking the forest service for its efforts. He asked how many supervisors of the Gila National Forest had worked on the plan.
"I think I'm the third," Russell said, "not counting interim supervisors. It's coming down to me to make the decision."
"If find it hard for one person to have total control of the decision," Ramos said. "I think there should have been more coordination with governing bodies on deciding, but there has been no coordination with local governments.
"This plan is an assault on our culture and traditions," Ramos alleged. "The impact on businesses has not been studied. Our counties have larger percentages of elderly and disabled than other counties in the state. We have 1,640 elderly and disabled in Grant County, and 12,000 in the other counties, including Sierra County."
He read a portion of the American with Disabilities Act, and commented: "We need to keep the roads open for the elderly and disabled, so they have access to the forest."
Ramos asked those who lived in the four-county area to raise their hands. Most were from the area, but not all.
"It's the locals who use the forest, and I'm one of them," Ramos said. "When you look at the participation, I have spent a lot of time in the forest, but was never given a questionnaire.
"For fuel-wood gathering, it can be allowed beyond the roads, but motor vehicle access is limited to the roads," Ramos said. "What happens when there are no trees or wood near the road?"
He also pointed out that the No Action alternative was incomplete. "A complete EIS is important. Out of 4, 604 miles of road, 1,609 are not counted, so they will automatically be thrown out. Alternative G is doing away with 24 percent of the roads, allegedly, but if you add in the 1,600 miles of roads, it would be 52 percent of the roads taken."
Commission Chairman Brett Kasten said he had recently met with forest service officials and had previewed the questions he would ask from an economic viewpoint. "I am a fourth-general Grant County resident and raising the fifth generation of my family here," he said. "Five thousand jobs are direct from the forest. I didn't think the DEIS on page 257 gave presumed jobs justice. Jobs will increase with more miles of road and decrease with fewer. We can't stand a lot of job loss here. That needs to be gone back and looked at. Farther on in the DEIS, it stated you didn't know how many jobs would be lost."
The socio-economic report is a separate document. Kasten, too, asked how the GNF would address ADA concerns.
"We are required to provide reasonable access to an area based on the expected use of the area," Russell said. "In buildings, that is basic wheelchair access."
"If a building is constructed," Mizuno said, "we will have ADA compliance. We are not required or allowed to construct something additional for the elderly and disabled."
Kasten said he understood that, and also understood that there would be no new roads. "However, I have a cousin, who lost his legs in Iraq. No access will make it difficult for him to bow hunt, which he loves to do."
Hall again thanked the forest service, as did Ramos when he said some things in the document need to be corrected, if they will impact the welfare of county residents. "We will support the New Mexico Association of Counties board of directors resolution to oppose travel management plans throughout the state," Ramos concluded.
The next article in the series will cover the comments made by proponents of the GNF travel management plan, as proposed, as well as those opposed to the plan.