Agency Documents Show Plan Likely to Result in Death of Endangered Species,
Damage to Habitat, Rivers, Streams
(PHOENIX, Ariz.) June 13, 2016— The Tonto National Forest released a final draft of its long-awaited Travel Management Plan on Friday that ignored members of the public and conservation groups who highlighted the need to minimize and repair damage caused by excessive motorized use on the forest. The Forest Service made few changes to the original proposed action, which had generated outcry among concerned users of the forest, which is one of the most heavily visited national forests in the country. The final draft of the plan authorizes public motorized use on more than 3,600 miles of roads and trails and includes more than 100,000 acres of off-road vehicle recreation areas.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the plan is very likely to result in annual deaths of endangered narrow-headed and northern Mexican garter snakes, and the allowed motorized use will damage critical habitat for many imperiled species, including the southwestern willow flycatcher and yellow-billed cuckoo. While some routes within critical habitat will be slated for closure and decommissioning, no timeline or funding source has been identified by the Forest Service to complete those actions.
“With this decision the Forest Service is not only abdicating its responsibility to assist in the recovery of listed species on the Tonto National Forest, it’s causing the continued loss of native wildlife and habitat,” said Katie Davis, public lands campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Preservation of the status quo at the expense of endangered species is an unacceptable approach to public land management.”
One of the primary reasons the Tonto National Forest was created in 1905 was to protect the watersheds of the Salt and Verde rivers. Off-road vehicles and user-created roads have devastating long-term impacts on streams and rivers — even a single vehicle driving through these areas can destroy river banks and result in the death of tortoises, snakes and other animals. However, under the new plan, the Forest Service has granted big-game hunters special privileges, allowing them to drive off-road on more than 1.9 million acres.
“Motorized cross-country travel causes severe damage to watersheds and wildlife habitat,” said Greg Dyson of WildEarth Guardians. “The Tonto was required to close motorized cross-country travel, which they did, but they then used the big game retrieval exception — an exception that must be used sparingly — to allow OHVs to maraud across half the forest. It’s a loophole that places most of the forest at risk to damage and abuse.”
Many of the roads in the plan would also provide motorized access to fragile ancient and historical sites. While the proposal would restrict most motorized use away from designated roads and trails, greatly reducing inadvertent vehicle damage to archaeological sites, it would leave 3,600 miles of roads open, even though the Forest Service estimates the cost to maintain this system will be 2.5 times its current allocated budget. A study by Archaeology Southwest showed a greater risk of vandalism for rock art and habitation sites in close proximity to roads open to motorized travel. Without proper oversight, highly visible archaeological sites will likely continue to be the targets of acts of vandalism.
“The Tonto’s decision appears to indicate that natural and cultural resource management on the Forest is secondary to motorized recreation,” said Andy Laurenzi, Southwest field representative for Archaeology Southwest.
“The Tonto National Forest provides many important benefits to our communities — clean air, clean water, opportunity for quiet recreation — and significant habitat to a diversity of plants and animals,” said Sandy Bahr, chapter director for Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon (Arizona) Chapter. “Irresponsible off-road vehicle activity and the excess of user-created roads associated with it have devastating long-term impacts on streams and rivers. The Forest Service has failed miserably in developing a plan to limit damage to the land, its waters and its wildlife.”