A Grant County Commission special meeting was held Feb. 4. The most time-consuming portion of the meeting was a Forest Service presentation and then audience comments on the Gila National Forest Travel Management Plan.

A commissioner and the Forest Service asked for opportunities to clarify some comments.

Commissioner Gabriel Ramos asked that it be noted that on page 46 of the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, 1,169 miles are listed in Alternative B, the no-action alternative, as being closed or decommissioned.  Another 630 miles, which would be closed, are trails.

"Right now the forest is open," Ramos said. "How will we know, if roads are close to each other, which is the road that we can use?"

 The Beat also talked about the issues with Gila National Forest Supervisor Kelly Russell and GNF public affairs officer, Andrea Martinez.

Martinez said they wanted to reinforce facts. "The public can call us or we will post the Travel Management Planning fact sheet on the Gila National Forest website."

In reply to a comment made at the Grant County Commission special meeting held Feb. 4, (the articles about which can be found at www.grantcountybeat.com), Russell said she is not making the decision by herself. "With all the public meetings and comments, I consider it an informed decision." That decision is expected this spring.

Comments have also circulated about the Forest Service not coordinating with the counties. "I think we have been coordinating with the counties," Russell said. "We have agreements with Grant County, as well as Hidalgo and Sierra counties, to work with them in cooperating agreements."

She said she believed the confusion was because of semantics. The Bureau of Land Management has what it calls "coordinating status," with different laws from those of the Forest Service, she said.

Discussion at the meeting about the roads not listed in the DEIS was answered to the Beat by Russell. She pointed out that the Management Level 1 roads, about 1,200 of them, had already been closed and decommissioned, which means they have gone back to nature.

"We continue to re-evaluate the 2,000 comments we have received on the DEIS," Russell said. "We have done an economic analysis as part of the process."

When the Final Environmental Impact Statement is released and the Record of Decision is made, the Forest Service will develop a map with designated roads for designated uses. "It will take time and education for the new road map," Russell said, "so we won't come down hard on folks immediately."  

"This is a progressive process," she continued. "We can re-evaluate issues, not by starting over, but by making them part of the National Environmental Policy Act process of another proposal. The decision is static and ongoing."

As for concerns about firefighting that were expressed at the meeting, Russell said all accessible roads will be open for emergency response. "We don't anticipate putting locked gates on any roads."

She also pointed out the DEIS allocates an increase in the number of motorized trails for ATVs.

"We're still looking at making the decision this spring, before fire season," Russell said. "That's our plan."

On another forest topic, Russell said personnel are looking at putting the Catwalk back in stages. "We are doing risk assessment," because the uplands impacted by the fire will still be vulnerable for four to five years, with flooding a potential problem.

The Travel Management Planning fact sheet is posted here in its entirety.

                  Gila National Forest            February 2013
Travel Management Planning

The Gila National Forest’s Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) and associated Record of Decision (ROD) are expected to be released in the spring of 2013.

During the formal public comment period, over 2,000 comments were received from individuals, organizations, and elected officials. These comments are currently being analyzed to reach completion of the FEIS and ROD.

The Gila National Forest released its Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) on motor vehicle use for Travel Management in accordance with the Forest Service publishing a new Travel Management Rule on November 9, 2005, that governs off-highway vehicles (OHV) and other motor vehicle use on national forests and grasslands. Publication of the Notice of Availability of the DEIS was published on January 7, 2011, in the Federal Register. This date marked the beginning of the 60-day comment period of the DEIS.  The comment period continued through March 7, 2011.

During the informal public comment period, the forest hosted numerous public meetings, workshops, and open houses to listen and consider public feedback in the development of alternatives for the DEIS.  District Rangers from the six Ranger District offices met with all four County Commissions (Catron, Grant, Hidalgo, and Sierra) where forest system lands are located.  

Forest managers understand that Travel Management is a controversial topic as it is a change from how the general public has historically used and accessed the national forests. When the final decision is made on the FEIS, the decision will reflect the forest’s consideration of the numerous comments received.  

•    The new rule requires each national forest to designate roads, trails, and areas open to motor vehicles. Motor vehicles will continue to be a legitimate and appropriate way for people to enjoy the Forest; the forest will continue to provide motor vehicle access to national forest lands for activities widely enjoyed by the general public. These activities include camping, fishing, hunting, hiking, mountain biking, wildlife viewing, horseback riding, and driving for pleasure on designated roads and trails.

•    With the release of the FEIS, the forest will be making changes as to how national forest system roads, motorized trails, and areas are available for use by motorized vehicles. Motorized travel will be allowed along the designated system of roads, trails, and areas as identified by the FEIS and the motor vehicle use map (MVUM).

•    In the DEIS, the Forest presented a preferred alternative (Alternative G which combines elements from other alternatives to provide a mix of motorized and non-motorized opportunities).
One-thousand two-hundred eighty-one (1,281) miles of roads (out of 4,604 miles currently open) are proposed for closure under Preferred Alternative G. These proposed roads are mainly little spur roads, normally ½ to 1 mile in length.  

With the proposed road closures under the preferred alternative, 3,323 miles of road would be open for public use.  There would also be an increase in ATV trails from 16 miles to 182 miles.

•    There are approximately 1,200 miles of roads on the forest that are currently closed or decommissioned, and don't show up on the maps. Of the 1200 miles that have been closed or decommissioned, some are closed and some are decommissioned. The decommissioned definition is included in the Fact Sheet to be found on the Gila National Forest’s web site—www.fs.usda.gov/gila/, while the “closed roads” are roads that are closed to the public for motorized use.

Decommissioned roads are those roads where the road bed has been restored (such as loosening of compacted soils, contouring to match surrounding landscape, seeding, etc.) to a natural state.  Over the years, decisions have been made that led to these roads being identified as closed or decommissioned within our system. Under NEPA and the Travel Management Rule, the Forest is not required to revisit these previous decisions. That is why the approximately 1,200 miles of roads don't show up on maps since they are already closed or decommissioned.
• For emergency or fire vehicles, it is one of the exemptions of the Travel Management Rule – “use of any fire, military, emergency, or law enforcement vehicle for emergency purposes” is exempt from having to stay on the roads, trails or areas open to motorized vehicles.

•    A social and economic analysis in accordance with Forest Service direction was completed taking into consideration Counties' social and economic information. The study area for the analysis included Catron, Grant, Hidalgo, and Sierra Counties that contain the vast majority of forest lands. Catron County contains the largest share of the forest with more than 2 million acres (62% of the four-county totals). The next highest forest acreage is in Grant County with 27% of the total; Sierra County at 11%; and Hidalgo County at 0.6%.

•    On aging and disabled populations, there is no legal requirement to allow people with disabilities to use motor vehicles on roads or trails, and in areas that are closed to motor vehicle use. Restrictions on motor vehicle use that are applied consistently to everyone are not discriminatory. Generally, granting an exemption from designations for people with disabilities would not be consistent with the resource protection and other management objectives of designation decisions and would fundamentally alter the nature of the Forest Service’s travel management program (29 U.S.C. 7904; 7 CFR 15e.103).

•    For the enforcement of travel management regulations, time, outreach, and education are fundamental for implementing change. We do not expect to catch all violators, but that doesn’t mean that all is lost.  Like other offenses that occur on National Forests, we will continue to work on the problem, adapt where we can, but overall… do the best we can with the resources available.  It is going to take time. 

The Fact Sheet on Travel Management is posted on the front page (upper right-hand corner, Quick Links) of the Gila National Forest’s web site—www.fs.usda.gov/gila/. For an electronic copy, please contact Andrea Martinez/Public Affairs, 575.388.8211, and provide your e-mail address.

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