A turf battle is brewing between Rio Arriba County and the federal Forest Service over a proposal that could change the rules governing travel in the Santa Fe National Forest.
County officials and residents squared off against Forest Service representatives at an Aug. 5 meeting in Abiquiú over a Travel Management Draft Environmental Impact Statement that contains five options for the future management of travel in the Forest, several of which could limit access to Forest roads and land.
The Forest covers 1.6 million acres in Rio Arriba, Taos, Santa Fe and Sandoval Counties. Under current management, 443,848 acres are open to cross-country off-road travel. There are 5,119 miles of roads currently in use.
County Commissioner Felipe Martinez questioned Forest Service officials over the plans’ potential for eliminating what the County considers protected roads.
“Does any of your alternatives consider closing traditional right-of-ways and historical trails?” Martinez said. “Do you propose to obliterate any that may fall under (Revised Statute) 2477?”
That 1866 federal statute states ”the right-of-way for the construction of highways over public lands, not reserved for public purposes, is hereby granted.”
The County Commission adopted a resolution in 2002 which opposed the “closure of roads under County jurisdiction or any other right-of-ways in Rio Arriba by the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management until all (Revised Statute) 2477 right-of-ways be verified and documented.”
The resolution also states “no federal agency has the authority to close a (Revised Statute) 2477 road for any reason.”
“It doesn’t obliterate any roads,” Forest Service spokeswoman Cindy Chonacky said. “We need you to identify any and all roads that may fall under that (statute).”
The County has not yet identified all of these roads, but is in the process of doing so, according to County Commission Chairman Alfredo Montoya.
The County has the right to keep open any right-of-way, according to County Assistant Planner Alberto Baros, of Española.
“That’s the mistake these guys are making,” Baros said. “When it concerns the County, we can keep the roads open.”
Northern New Mexico Cattlemen’s Association President Carlos Salazar, of Medanales, grazes cattle in the Forest near Cañones.
“My issue with this land management is you’re going to limit access that we’ve had for centuries,” he said.
Salazar and Martinez argued that traditional uses like cattle grazing and the gathering of firewood may be limited by the alternatives offered in the statement.
Coyote Forest District ranger Francisco Sanchez addressed the concern of those that held grazing permits.
“Permittees will be able to fix fences, round up cattle and use (all-terrain vehicles) to do so,” he said.
Travel Management Interdisciplinary Team Leader Julie Bain confirmed that permittees will be able to care for their cattle under all of the alternatives.
“People who hold permits will still have access,” she said. “It will be written into their permit.”
The meeting attracted 13 people to the Rural Events Center in Abiquiú. Salazar complained the meeting was not well-publicized.
“When I pulled into the lot I saw nothing but government plates, and that means the word didn’t get out,” he said.
Chavez said the meeting schedule had been published in several newspapers, including the SUN.
“Why isn’t the County Commission involved?” Salazar said.
Chavez said he had met with the Commission previously when Lorenzo Valdez was County manager. Valdez left the post in March.
“We have talked to the County,” Sanchez said.
Martinez said he felt it was up to the County Commission to stand up for County residents whose access to traditional uses may be limited by the new plan.
“They look to us for intervention and advocacy so we can be their voice,” he said.
Others at the meeting raised concerns over the use of off-road vehicles.
Veronica Egan, of Mancos, Colo., was representing Great Old Broads for Wilderness, a nonprofit organization.
“Off-road vehicle use has grown so rapidly it’s pushing the boundaries of wilderness,” she said. “There’s a time and a place for everything and (off-roaders) need to mature, get over their extreme gnarliness and learn to play by the rules.”
Bruce Ferguson, of Taos, argued for off-road recreation.
“You have 40 million people retiring soon who are no longer able to hike but still want to use areas they’re familiar with,” he said. “You are closing more and more areas to the only means they have left to see them.”
The meeting was supposed to end with a period of public comment, but most of the attendees had commented earlier, during the period that was supposed to be limited only to questions. A number of attendees sat quietly throughout the meeting and then left.
“I don’t trust these guys,” Salazar said, referring to the Forest Service. “They’re married to environmental groups.”
The meeting was the first of eight open house meetings scheduled during a 45-day period that ends Sept. 30 during which public comment on the draft plan is encouraged.
“We want to hear what people are thinking,” Española District ranger Sandy Hurlocker said. “We don’t have a preferred alternative. Tell us what you think and why you think it.”
The Forest Service plans to make a decision on the plan by the end of the calendar year, followed by the publication of a map showing what roads, trails and areas are legal to drive on, Hurlocker said.
The options currently under consideration were created to address concerns over the effects of unmanaged off-highway vehicles. Some of the detrimental effects of that method of travel are degradation of water quality through erosion and soil compaction, the fragmentation of wildlife habitat, damage to cultural resource sites, spreading of nonnative invasive plants, and compromising the character of wilderness.
The plan will provide a system of roads, trails and areas on National Forest lands specifically designated for motorized use.