Editor's Note: This is the final article in a multi-part series on a Grant County Commission special meeting held Monday, Feb. 4. This article will cover the comments of those who favor the restrictions proposed in the Gila National Forest Draft Environmental Impact Statement. A few clarifications are included in the article, but additional ones will be included in a short, extra article.
Commission Chairman Brett Kasten, as he had warned before the meeting, reiterated that those wishing to comment on the travel management plan would speak only to commissioners, would not engage another member of the audience, and there would be no heckling of the person at the podium. He said plainclothes officers were in the standing room only audience.
Kasten asked every speaker and audience member to be courteous to the guests, Forest Service personnel.
"We want to hear new comments, new ideas and no repetition of what was already said," Kasten said. "We will allow three minutes per person."
Donna Stevens, Upper Gila Watershed Alliance director, was the first to speak. "I have attended all the public and private travel management plan meetings. We can all agree that we value the Gila National Forest, we all want access, and we want it protected."
She pointed out that the preferred Forest Service alternative keeps open more than 3,300 miles, enough to drive from San Diego to Maine, letting the elderly and disabled continue to enjoy their forest.
"We are quibbling over which roads are open, which ones are closed," Stevens said. "Compromise is required." An UGWA colleague held up a map, showing, by color, the property in the forest within one mile of open road. The majority of the forest was colored.
Commissioner Gabriel Ramos asked Stevens if she was paid to attend the meetings, and she replied that she was, as part of her job as UGWA director.
A speaker, whose name the Beat did not get, said he was a Silver City resident, and he believed the main issue in the forest was the deferred, backlogged maintenance of roads, which would cost more than $200 million for the Gila National Forest, whose budget is about $1 million a year. "There is a discrepancy between the number of roads not maintained, so roads become unsafe. Either the county needs to come up with the funding, lobby the federal government or close the roads."
Daniel Patterson of Commissioner Ron Hall's district said he is a hunter and an NRA member. "I'm sick and tired of my rights being disrespected. The hunting quality is degraded by the excess of roads. The mentality is that you have to be right next to the game to pick it up. That's not the way I was raised. The Gila National Forest is important to us, but it is owned by every American. Let's make sure we don't spoil it. Unless you have a high-clearance vehicle, you can't get on many of the roads anyway. When a road is in bad shape, you have erosion. I'm frustrated the process has gone on for years, with nothing being done to preserve the forest. It's a mistake to wait and wait. There is a difference between access and excess."
Kim McCreery, New Mexico Wilderness Alliance regional director, said she was speaking for her organization and herself as a county resident. "I hike throughout the forest. I have to drive to where I want to go, and I have driven off-road vehicles. No one will like everything in the plan." She said there has been plenty of time to make comments. "I realize some roads will be closed. I ask myself if it's because it's a riparian area, or for the vegetation, to prevent erosion or the cattle have nowhere to graze. We have the responsibility to future generations."
She asked: "Under what conditions will you close roads? I will come ask you personally." She showed a map of roads in New Mexico, not including trails. Much of the state is covered by roads, except for a white space where the Gila and Aldo Leopold wilderness areas are in southwest New Mexico.
John Warner, a resident of Silver City, said he and his wife were living in Mexico, "but my wife got bored with retirement. We looked at job opportunities and had offers in Colorado, Washington, Oregon and New Mexico. We chose Silver City, primarily because of the competitive advantage of the Gila National Forest and Wilderness. I'm in it at least five days a week. From an economic development standpoint, you wouldn't have our tax dollars. We don't want the forest open to more access, because it's very difficult to close it back up. We would prefer restricted and protected."
Clarification: No additional roads are in any of the alternatives of the plan.
"Same rules, other side of the issue," Kasten said at the end of the first group of comments.
William Mize said his property borders the forest. "We have designated wilderness areas that are restricted from motor vehicle access, but I see motorized vehicle tracks all the time. The Forest Service will not repair a barrier that was in place. The Forest Service cannot regulate what it has now. I see the resources it has, but it doesn't take care of them. The economy is in the tank. I don't agree with closing roads in the forest."
Norman Ruebush, Silver City resident, said his first remembrance of going to the forest was in 1942. "We went up to Willow Creek. We would drive down the Gilita and that road is not there any more. At the Negrito Campgounds, the road to the south is not used, and you can't even get an ATV up there. If not used, roads will shut down. We went to four campgrounds in the Sacramento Mountains and all were locked. The Negrito is also closed. We went to the Forest Service Visitor Center, but the parking lot was empty. In back there were at least 30 other vehicles, but we couldn't find out why the Negrito was closed."
Earl Montoya, Silver City resident, stated: "The Draft Environmental Statement is not legal for four reasons. The numbers are wrong. Many miles of road were left out, and anything not in the EIS will be closed by default. The use of roads is based on road miles, acreage, streams crossed, but that has nothing to do with use. A road can be one mile long, but people use it or a road can be 100 miles long, and only two people use it.
His third reason was that the Travel Management Plan is based on President Richard Nixon's Executive Order 11644, which does not mention roads, but only areas and trails that may be used by or closed to off-road vehicles. He also said the EIS should be transparent and open. He recommended the DEIS be thrown out and started over again from scratch.
James Koons, county resident, said if he wanted to camp and park on a roadside, he would camp at Walmart. "Why am I punished for people who do not obey the rules? I am an avid hunter and spend about 75 days in the forest. I'm successful in my hunts. I walk, but I have off-highway vehicle users driving right by me." He opined the forest service would have money to fix roads, if it could stop having to deal with frivolous lawsuits.
Joanne Spivack, New Mexico contact for the National Off Highway Vehicle Conservation Council, said the travel management plan decision is supposed to be based on science and the forest service must follow rules. "I feel a rational decision cannot be done." She said up to 1,800 miles are not noted in the decision, which she described as where the National Environmental Policy Act meets the Environmental Impact Statement. Spivack alleged that the TMP says any road or trail not in the EIS is by default closed. She said the roads should be listed in the No Action alternative.
"There are rules about how they have to do the process," Spivack said. "Other alternatives must be compared to the No Action alternative. They made the decision to leave out roads. That is predecisional and that's illegal. I feel the EIS is fraudulent and illegal."
Lelania Osmer, who described herself as a 10th generation New Mexican, said she grew up in the middle of the Gila National Forest. "I feel this plan would be restrictive to me and the raising of my daughter. We go on less traveled roads, because they are less affected by people. Many of the rules are not being enforced, such as shooting from vehicles. The plan is also restricting access to mineralogical resources."
Bill Waldman said what concerns him about closing roads is fire access. "With more road closures, it will make it harder to get resources to fires," he alleged. "With a bad fire, they will have an inability to control it. Without initial attack facilities, fires will go out of control. Resources will have to go by roads, because there are fewer air tankers and fewer heliattacks."
Clairification: The EIS exempts road closures and states that all accessible, closed roads will be available for emergency response organizations.
Kasten invited county commissioners from other counties to comment.
Hidalgo County Commissioner Darr Shannon said she was representing, not only her county, but also hunters, fishermen and recreationists who love the Gila National Forest. "I have had constituents tell me they are upset about road closings and don't understand how less access will help them."
Catron County Commissioner Bucky Allred, a lifelong resident of the area, said he has been involved in the travel management plan process since it began. "In Catron County, the TMP is redundancy. Alternative B, no action, is supposed to be compared to the others, but in the others we will lose 60 percent of our roads. The economic impacts haven't been done. The loss of our forest to fire has devastated our economy and crime and poverty have increased." He pointed out that Santa Fe County was suing the Forest Service for the Santa Fe Forest travel management plan. "This plan will hurt our citizens and our tax base."
Kasten pointed out that, although no public input is allowed in special meetings, this one had 1½ hours of public input.
"I appreciate the civil discourse tonight," Kasten said and adjourned the meeting.
An additional article will include more clarifications on comments made during the special meeting.