Two Coconino County sheriffs -- one current, one retired -- are criticizing plans to close parts of the Coconino National Forest to cross-country driving for game retrieval and camping.
"The Forest Service is converting hundreds of square miles of our forest land to 'wilderness' status by fiat. They will be closing hundreds of miles of roads in our forests that have been open to the public for decades," Coconino County Sheriff Bill Pribil wrote in a letter of objection to the Legislature.
He said the plan would limit activities for hikers and hunters restricted by age and disability, and potentially cause problems for law enforcement.
"Reducing camping opportunities and condensing campers into fewer areas will lead to increased conflicts that will require law enforcement response and intervention. The Forest Service will be making criminals out of families that have camped or enjoyed areas of the forest for generations but are now restricted due to the new travel management plan," Pribil wrote.
The Center for Biological Diversity stood on the other side of the issue, pushing national forests in the Southwest to limit use of vehicles for game retrieval and to reduce the number of roads overall.
"Anyone who's spent any time in the woods around Flagstaff knows these rules are badly needed. Off-road vehicles are trashing our forests and causing long-term damage," said Cyndi Tuell, of the Center for Biological Diversity. "Sheriff Pribil should be advocating for the enforcement of rules that protect our publicly owned forests, not lobbing criticism long after the rules have been put in place."
OVERREACH OF FEDS
Retired Coconino County Sheriff Joe Richards raised more philosophical objections.
"This is all about the reduction of grazing rights, the 'taking' of private property, expansion of wilderness areas, and the consequences of the Endangered Species Act, environmental extremists, the impact of Water Rights Law and the 'over reach' of Federal Authority," Richards wrote.
Bans on cross-country driving and road closures were proposed in 2005, when the U.S. Forest Service announced new restrictions nationwide.
The Coconino National Forest held open houses on the proposals in 2007, and the Kaibab National Forest held multiple meetings.
The proposal for the Coconino National Forest eliminates 66 percent of areas where car campers and travel trailers could spend the night, reducing it from a majority of the forest to an area a little more than double the size of the Kachina Peaks Wilderness area.
Instead, car campers could camp within 300-foot limits of some forest roads.
Popular camping sites, like those off Freidlein Prairie and Hart Prairie roads, will remain open.
But camping sites off some very rough roads will close. Excluding wilderness areas, a person standing somewhere in the Coconino National Forest is within half a mile of an open road about 93 percent of the time.
Under the pending changes, that figure is reduced to 79 percent.
A 2005 Arizona Game and Fish survey found 54 percent of hunters sometimes found ATVs disruptive to their hunts.
The Coconino National Forest received more than 1,000 comments on these proposals in the last few years.
NEW MAPS IN APRIL
Rough maps showing what's open and closed are likely to come to the Coconino National Forest in April, but it's expected drivers will need to pair them with other maps to determine what's open or closed.
About 97 Forest Service employees will be enforcing the new rules on the Coconino. The roads that are "closed" won't actually be blocked, obliterated or otherwise marked, partly because the Forest Service expects people wishing to use closed roads could simply pull up and throw aside "road closed" signs.
Cyndy Cole can be reached at 913-8607 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.