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Gila National Forest releases vehicle-management plan
By Donna Stevens, Upper Gila Watershed Alliance, 07/01/14
After years of delays, the Gila National Forest finally released its much-anticipated Travel Management Final Environmental Impact Statement and Record of Decision on June 11.
When the decision is implemented in 2015, it will prohibit driving off-road. This in itself is a huge step toward protecting natural resources and is long overdue.
The decision is a mixed bag, with some good resource protections and some questionable judgments. The Forest Service chose a middle-of-the-road alternative, leaving open 3,323 miles of roads — enough to drive from San Diego to Maine — which strikes the Upper Gila Watershed Alliance as a bit excessive.
The miles of road alone aren’t the only concern; the location of designated roads is also crucial. The decision leaves open 245 miles of roads and motorized trails in Inventoried Roadless Areas and nearly 5 road miles and over 21 acres to motorized travel in Wilderness Study Areas, thus detracting from the wilderness character of these areas. There are also 24 road crossings in sections of river eligible for Wild and Scenic designations.
We are very supportive of the Forest Service’s decision to close a road that repeatedly crosses and sometimes travels directly along the San Francisco River.
A major tributary of the Gila River, the San Francisco is home to endangered spikedace and loach minnow, as well as Southwest willow flycatchers.
Unfortunately, the road in Big Dry Creek heading into the San Francisco will remain open. Recreational motorists in Big Dry will be tempted to continue into the San Francisco, making enforcement of the new rules and protection of the river nearly impossible.
The final decision follows the recommendation of the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish and allows driving for up to 300 feet on either side of the road for car camping and using vehicles to pick up downed big game along 1,316 miles of roads. This amounts to 94,000 acres of areas open for off-road driving. This decision is supported by the state’s sportsmen’s groups.
Although a few elected officials are complaining about inadequate opportunities for input, the Forest Service actually did an outstanding job of hosting public meetings and soliciting comments throughout the years-long process.
Organizations and individuals with standing have until July 26 to appeal the decision.
To read the final EIS and view maps, you can visit the Gila National Forest’s website at: http://1.usa.gov/1iGOXrQ
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