By Mary Alice Murphy
At the Grant County Commission special meeting held Monday, Aug. 20, 2018, although public input is not on special meeting agendas, commissioners allowed input before making decisions on two forest road issues—one on designating Bear Creek area of interest a motorized trail and the decommissioning of already closed roads in the Burro Mountains.
An item on the agenda to appoint an alternate member to the County Valuation Board, which had been requested by Assessor Raul Turrieta at the previous week's regular meeting, was removed from the agenda.
County Manager Charlene Webb said that the assessor was not ready to appoint an alternate.
The next topic addressed a resolution requesting the USDA Forest Service to designate Bear Creek area of interest (Forest Road 506) as a designated motorized trail.
Commissioner Gabriel Ramos moved to approve the resolution with the amendment of changing the word trail to road.
Ramos said the Forest Service had been wanting comments on roads in the Burros. "I've heard comments from residents that the side-by-side UTVs won't fit on trails, which are never more than 50-inches wide."
"You're saying if it's designated a trail, then it is a maximum of 50-inches wide?" Commissioner Alicia Edwards asked. Ramos confirmed that width.
"I believe that it is imperative to state that there is no justification to creating a motorized trail," Edwards said. She read from a prepared statement, which included this snippet.
"I understand that it only takes one bad actor to cause destruction," Edwards said. "The Forest Service wants to maintain this road for administrative use. I've been advocating for a Master Trail Plan. This is why."
Commissioner Harry Browne protested that there was no public comment at the meeting.
Webb explained that the county's Open Meetings Act resolution states that there is no public comment at special meetings, except as circumstances allow.
"This was clearly as circumstances allow," Browne said.
The commissioners agreed to allow public comment, but only for three minutes each.
"I'm pleased you're allowing it," Browne said.
"I'm a little disappointed, because others asked me about public comment and I told them because it was a special meeting, there would be no public comment," Ramos said.
Commissioner Brett Kasten said, with a motion on the floor, "we can allow limited discussion before voting on the motion."
Bob Garrett, Pinos Altos Mutual Domestic Water Association president, said he has his ear to the community. "I see where ROVs (recreational off-road vehicles) are being allowed in our community, no information was passed out to the community about this decision. We are a little upset to see that the ROV access opens at mile marker 6.2 and goes through Pinos Altos. Perhaps it should start at the forest boundary. It's a public safety issue. We are lightly, and that's an understatement, patrolled by the Sheriff's Department. We would like to be supportive of tourism and hunting, but I think you need more discussion and input from Pinos Altos."
Mary Lynne Newell, representing the local chapter of the Great Old Broads of the Wilderness, said she had written a letter to the commissioners asking them to vote against opening Bear Creek Road to the public. "It's detrimental to the wilderness. The property was purchased for conservation. It's one of the few riparian areas left in pristine condition. Motorized use would impact it. Motorized vehicles exacerbate fire danger. There is a potential for greater disaster for those who live back there. It's OK for the first part to be open to a parking area, but not beyond. We could use it as an outdoor classroom. Please keep it pristine so that we can use it for generations. Let's not do it to this piece of property."
Rhonda Jackson, representing the Southwest Sufi Community, said they are downstream of a conservation easement that protects Bear Creek, which runs perennially. "It was formerly private parcels taken out of grazing. We want to conserve it and allow it to return to a more natural state. Preserve Bear Creek, not for just this group of hobbyists. Vehicle traffic in the creek bed will have detrimental impacts to our property conservation easement. The easement includes federal and state agencies, as well as private owners. The public and private interests collaborated to bring it into the easement. We ask you not to make it motorized."
Carol Fugagli, Silver City resident, urged commissioners not to put motorized travel in the area. "It would be contrary to the purpose for which the property was purchased. Sen. Tom Udall said it is a great place to hike and camp. Vehicles will exacerbate the erosion and soil disturbance. Endangered species are likely to be impacted. It's a riparian area where endangered species can survive."
She said with "climate change," a 570 percent increase in fire is expected by the end of the century. "This weekend, tagged cows were seen along Bear Creek, and they aren't supposed to be there. Those who drive vehicles along Bear Creek will leave trash and debris. There is a paucity of law enforcement. Let's leave Bear Creek alone."
Doyne Wrealli of the Gila Resources Information Project said the organization and the Gila Conservation Coalition, which works to protect the Gila River and its watershed, oppose motorized vehicles in the area. "The Gila Conservation Coalition believes the Bear Creek area should be closed to motorized vehicles for all the reasons you've heard before. In addition, the authorization of a new road in the Bear Creek area is not a best management practice."
"The Forest Service is working to relocate roads in riparian areas," Wrealli said. "It makes no sense to put in a new one, creating need for expensive restoration in the future. It will impact endangered species. Bear Creek supports the loach minnow and other endangered and threated species including the Sonoran sucker and the desert sucker, as well as 29 species categorized as of greatest conservation need."
She continued by saying Bear Creek should be preserved for non-motorized traffic. "Many Continental Divide Trail hikers use Bear Creek because it's a water source. We also support the decommissioning of roads in the Burros."
Robert Fischoff gave his support against motorized traffic in the Bear Creek area. "The land was acquired for hiking only," so he said the potential decision of the commission was against the purpose of its acquisition. "Keep Bear Creek as it is."
Dan Roper with the Continental Divide Trail Coalition said the members of the coalition had sent their comments to the Forest Service. "Our concerns are the impact to the Continental Divide Trail. It's the route most hikers take from Little Walnut Road to the Gila Cliff Dwellings. They use Forest Road 506 and we worry about the impact of vehicles."
Martin Wright said there is confusion. "There is already a road in the Bear Creek area that I believe predates the Forest Service. We use ATVs to see things that my wife, who is disabled, would never, ever, get to see otherwise. I have always understood that roads that carry a three-digit number are existing roads that would not be closed under the Travel Management Plan."
Ron Troy of the New Mexico Land Conservancy said he was involved in the Southwest Sufi Community conservation easement. Freeport had done mitigation in the area and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had put in 100s of thousands of dollars. The Sufi Community put in a donation for preservation based on protection of the watershed. There were three purchases, in excess of millions of dollars, put into the protection of the fresh watershed. "It takes only one road and parking lot to undo the protection. I consider it an investment we have put in place for protection of freshwater habitat. There are about 300 common blackhawks in the entire U.S. At least three are found in the Bear Creek watershed."
With the main motion on the floor, commissioners kept the discussion going.
"I have had the privilege of ATVing, fishing, hunting, and camping in the area," Ramos said. "They gave me some of my best memories. Now I do it with my family for their memories. We want to keep it open to everyone. There are always going to be bad people who mess it up for others, but they are the few. I am fifth generation here. I truly believe we need to preserve this region for our children and grandchildren, but not by closing roads and limiting access by the disabled, the elderly and our retirees. Why do we want to keep them out? Bicyclists are important, and they bring in money. ATV users are very important, and they bring in money. What about hikers, rock climbers, gold panners, wood cutters, making a living cutting and selling wood?
"Most people moved here because it was beautiful," Ramos said. "I welcome them to our county. Please don't try to come here and change things when they were perfect when you moved here. Don't try to change this unique, tranquil place to make it like the place you moved here from. My question to the opposition is why if you loved it enough to move here, why would you want to block people out of the forest and minimize use? Our forest, for the longest time, has been known as the land of many uses. The opposition wants it to be the land of only their use. We have around 800,000 acres of wilderness that is pristine. I have hiked those trails. A lot of tourism is brought in by ATV use. I am 47 years old and that road has been here for 47 of my years. I've utilized that road and gone back to Ben Lilly pond and swam there. Of course, we had to ask permission. I've always been against purchasing public land and then closing it and saving it for the select few. I don't want to be like Texas where everything is private, and nobody can use it. Keep it the land of many uses. We all have reasons for utilizing that beautiful forest, not just hikers and conservation groups that are paid to come here to be against us every time there is an issue. It's the same people over and over again. They represent a lot of environmental groups. They get paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to come in to talk to us and give us their reasons why to close roads and keep people out of the forest. Well, God bless, let's take care of it for the 5 percent who mess it up for all of us and turn them in when we can. I know a lot of ladies and gentlemen who go into the forest and pick up after others, just as I do. Let's respect one another's viewpoints, but let everyone use the forest, not just the select few and for their reasons. Thank you."
Browne began his comments. "Thank you for allowing the 20 minutes of public input. I'm glad we're having this conversation. I agree it's about multi-use, while accommodating different needs and values. It's about balance of those needs and values."
"I will digress," he continued. "When I was director of GRIP, I was paid zero dollars, then $10,000 a year. It has been raised to $24,000 a year. So, it's not hundreds of thousands of dollars."
Ramos clarified with: "Accumulated."
"I would love to see the data. We feel focusing on that undermines the opinions of those who are representing themselves as residents and are representing others as well. We need to take their opinions into account," Browne said, as he returned to his comments. "It's about balancing values—conservation values, access values and kinds of access values."
He also suggested that those who move are not moving here because it is perfect. "To some extent it's true, but some have a different vision. Some things here are not perfect because they are the result of unsustainable practices by those who lived here before we moved here. Maybe we come with fresh eyes. Placer mining of Bear Creek was terrible. Over time overuse of motorized vehicles on roads and trails causes erosion, converting grass to dirt, and degradation over time."
Browne said he believed there should be some access to a good part of Forest Road 506. He said he believed parts of the road were not appropriate for anything but ATVs. "It would cost too much for restoration. The west side can be driven, I believe, as far as Wilson Canyon and most of the road is well off the creek. We should encourage the Forest Service to allow motorized vehicles if the Forest Service can do it in a sustainable manner, by decommissioning side roads, for example. Put a parking lot and signage, especially educational signage not to go off roads and trails, so we can all have access. I don't understand the loop idea. Drive out, enjoy and drive back. It's not worth it to me to allow a loop by driving in the creek or where it crosses the creek so many times. I would like to restore the creek to better conditions. I'm not sure if we can amend it at this point."
Kasten said he thought Browne was talking about the part not in the Travel Management Plan.
Browne said about 60 percent of the area was included in the TMP, with about 40 percent being purchased after the TMP.
Beth Ihle, detail ranger on the Silver City District said she started "this conundrum about a month ago. It consists of three items: decommissioning some roads in the Burros, addressing ATVs in the Burros and the road in the Bear Creek area. For the Bear Creek area, it was to get feedback. The forest supervisor asked us to take comments to see if people were interested. We have certainly gotten robust feedback. We share the same values of preservation."
Browne said even through the western part was part of the TMP, "you're looking for feedback?"
"It all depends on what management decisions we make," Ihle said. "It may require NEPA. If we considered only the land just acquired, it would make for a 'clunky' system."
Ramos said this past weekend, he had the privilege to go into the Reserve area. "One of my relatives from Albuquerque was here. He's a Vietnam vet with back and leg problems. He got shot up. If it's hadn't been for those roads and a vehicle to get him out, there's no way he could have enjoyed the beauty. We want everyone to enjoy the forest. Not just a few."
Commissioners approved, 3-2, designating Forest Road 506 as a motorized road in the Bear Creek area.
The next resolution addressed decommissioning certain closed roads in the Burro Mountains area.
Browne asked to add the word credible before public input in the resolution. For the motion, Ramos moved to approve, and Browne seconded it.
Ramos said because of the short distances of roads being decommissioned, he was not against preserving the landscape. "Friends out there are concerned if the roads are decommissioned that they will never open again." The motion was approved unanimously.
The last item of business on the agenda addressed requests for proposals for opioid litigation services for Grant County.
County Attorney Abigail Burgess said the issue had been discussed a while back. "We went out for request for proposal (RFP) to get proposals from those involved. We got two good replies. The RFP Committee recommends Napoli Shkolnik of Fadduol, Cluff, Hardy and Conaway P.C. It is a huge litigation to bring services to counties. A couple of other counties in New Mexico have signed up with them. We agreed to a 25 percent flat contingency."
During discussion, after a motion by Kasten, Browne asked how long the firms had been around.
"We did have a requirement for substantial experience," Burgess said. "They have attorneys with substantial experience in this sort of litigation. One firm in the group, Fadduol, is in Albuquerque."
Edwards asked to be assured there would be no out-of-pocket costs from the county.
"They will receive nothing unless there's an award to Grant County," Burgess confirmed. "They will look at each county. I suspect they will create a formula to determine how much damage has been caused in Grant County. It could be formula specific to the county or more formulas."
Commissioners approved the recommendation.
The special meeting adjourned.