Thursday, January 8, 2009

Off-roading recommendations presented to state lawmakers

ALBUQUERQUE — A handful of state agencies has developed recommendations aimed at resolving conflicts with off-road vehicle users and curbing damage to cultural and natural resources across New Mexico.

The agencies presented the recommendations to state legislators during a packed meeting at the State Capitol on Wednesday. The hours-long meeting drew off-roaders, land owners and environmentalists, all passionate about their right to enjoy public land.

Democratic Sen. Phil Griego of San Jose said he plans to introduce legislation based on the recommendations and that developing an equitable way to manage off-road use is of great importance to New Mexico and the rest of the country.

"I know that in Colorado they're having the same kind of issues, and in Arizona they're having the same kind of issues," Griego said. "If you talk to any government official who deals with parks or mountains or wilderness areas, they're going to tell you these off-roaders are destroying the trails, they're destroying the forests, they're disrespecting the people who make a living off the land."

Battles among off-roaders, ranchers and environmentalists have heated up around the country as federal land management agencies try to decide what areas should be designated for travel by motorcycles, four-wheelers and other backcountry vehicles.

Ranchers have complained that their fences are being cut and their animals are being chased, but off-road recreation groups say the majority of off-roaders are being given a black eye by a small group of riders who disrespect the land.

In an effort to find a middle ground, New Mexico lawmakers charged the state Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department, the Game and Fish Department and other agencies to come up with the recommendations before the legislative session that starts Jan. 20.

The recommendations — the result of 10 months of work — range from a hot line for reporting off-road violations to requiring off-roaders to get an added endorsement on their driver's licenses that would ensure they are educated on proper trail etiquette.

"What we're trying to do is pass a law that will allow them to use the trails but learn to respect the culture, learn to respect the environment and ride with some responsibility," Griego said.

The recommendations also call for the state Game and Fish Department to manage New Mexico's off-road vehicle recreation and for the state to coordinate with the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management as they develop travel management plans for federal lands.

Reese Fullerton, deputy secretary of Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources, said he plans to meet with off-roaders to hear any concerns about the recommendations. But, he added, he thinks off-road groups will step up to help the state watch for improper off-road vehicle recreation.

"There will be some battles but I think most people are responsible," Fullerton said.

A message seeking comment was left Wednesday with the New Mexico Off Highway Vehicle Alliance. The group has accused Fullerton's agency of having an anti-off-road bias.

Fullerton said there are success stories in other states where officials have taken steps to manage off-road vehicle recreation through age limits, safety requirements and rider education mandates.

"This is a good time for New Mexico to be doing this," he said.

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