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Officials, locals spar over plan to restrict off-highway vehicles in national forest

Christopher Knopp, supervisor of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, says a plan to restrict off-highway vehicle access to areas of the forest is a way to balance the interests of recreationists against the environment, archaeological resources and more. (Cronkite News Service Photo by Grant Martin)

Christopher Knopp, supervisor of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, says a plan to restrict off-highway vehicle access to areas of the forest is a way to balance the interests of recreationists against the environment, archaeological resources and more. (Cronkite News Service Photo by Grant Martin)

Leaning against a trailer filled with cords of freshly cut fir, Nate Henry shrugged off the possibility that a proposed U.S. Forest Service policy might affect his livelihood.

“It’s kind of laughable,” said Henry, who uses trails throughout the nearby Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest to gather firewood that he sells on the side.

Forest officials intend to close some of these trails as part of a plan to reduce the impact of off-road travel, though Henry doubts he’ll adhere to any new rules.

“They can try,” he added with a smirk, “but it’s not gonna work.”

The proposal is no laughing matter for others, who view the plan as a serious threat to a lifestyle enabled by this remote community’s relative isolation and proximity to the forest.

“I’ve been a supervisor for six years, and I’ve never seen any issue push people’s hot buttons like this one,” said David Tenney, a member of the Navajo County Board of Supervisors.

“The vast majority of people here are concerned, because they don’t want to see a forest they’ve been living in and off of for generations be closed in any way,” Tenney said.

The plan is part of an initiative launched in 2005 to mitigate the effects of off-highway vehicles in all 155 national forests.

As supervisor of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, Christopher Knopp is acutely aware of the need to regulate the use of trails.

“National forests are one of the few places in the country where you actually can use off-highway vehicles,” Knopp said. “But that use has a price, and it conflicts with hunting, fishing, scenic values, wildlife, water quality, [and] archaeological resources.

“If it’s not managed properly, it will not be sustainable, and what we’re trying to do is create a sustainable balance so that all of those resources are protected in the national forest,” he said.

The process of adopting an official travel plan for the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest has been protracted and contentious. The first proposal, presented in 2006, was met with such virulent opposition that it was immediately withdrawn.

In the years since, forest officials have incorporated locals’ concerns and now have five options for a final plan, each of which is scheduled to be unveiled at a public meeting in early November.

Knopp said people generally use the trails in his forest for three purposes – big-game retrieval, camping and gathering wood – and that the plan ultimately selected will have less of an effect on these activities than locals might anticipate.

“Despite the very broad and often conflicting desires of the public, I think we’ve done a very good job of balancing that in meeting everyone’s needs,” said Knopp, noting that no option calls for more than a 13 percent reduction in trails accessible to the public.

“No one gets everything they want in this,” Knopp said, “and yet I believe we’ve come up with a good, equitable balance that actually keeps people’s access and use of the national forest pretty much as it has been.”

For some residents of Springerville and other small towns near the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, however, any change to their lifestyle is unsettling.

“My grandfather used the trails here back when he was a young man,” said Elden Blair, a resident of Snowflake. “I was born and raised in this area. I don’t live here for the money but for the lifestyle, and it’s ingrained in our culture.”

Blair, who calls himself an active outdoorsman, said he recognizes the need to restrict vehicles from certain areas, explaining, “I don’t like seeing these trails abused.”

But those restrictions need to be reasonable, he said.

“In my neck of the woods, I have no access to natural gas, and in the winter my monthly propane bill is almost $800,” Blair said. “I gather firewood here to keep my costs down.”

No matter how his constituents use the trails, however, Tenney expects that any imposed restrictions on their access will be reasonable.

“Right now, there’s a lot of misinformation going around; it’s the whole ‘the sky is falling’ mentality,” Tenney said. “But I’m confident that the Forest Service will use common sense, and do this the right way.”

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