WASHINGTON – The Kaibab National Forest this week announced plans to let vehicles go off-road in part of the forest, a proposal that environmentalists fear will harm both wildlife and public land.
Under the plan announced Tuesday, the forest near Flagstaff would allow motorized vehicles to travel 30 feet from any open road. Campers and hunters in the North Kaibab Ranger District would have even more freedom, with campers allowed to go as far as 300 feet off-road and hunters able to drive freely on forest land.
The plan would add 796 spur routes that could be used for camping, in addition to about 16 more miles in the open-road system, according to the decision notice posted by the U.S. Forest Service.
“These additions are important for meeting the demand for motorized camping opportunities, especially in peak times (e.g., holiday weekends and hunting seasons),” the decision notice said.
Forest officials could not be reached for comment Thursday on the plan. But environmental groups quickly attacked the proposal.
The Center for Biological Diversity said the decision could disrupt many hunters’ experiences, as well as damage certain wildlife habitats and ruin some portions of the public land.
“Outside of the wilderness, there is not a square mile of forest that doesn’t have a road in it,” said Cyndi Tuell, the center’s Southwest conservation advocate.
She said problems include animals that could be crushed by off-roading vehicles, which can also spread weed seeds that could harm native vegetation that animals rely on for food.
Tuell said she has received calls and emails from hunters who say they no longer enjoy hunting in the Kaibab Forest because of the disruptions from motorized vehicles.
“The Kaibab is one of the most popular elk-hunting forests in the state … and motorized hunters are disrupting this,” she said. “They (forest officials) didn’t make any areas that are quiet and enjoyable for the public.”
But a spokesman for the Arizona Game and Fish Department disagreed that the policy will inconvenience hunters, saying the new vehicle policy aims to help them in the forest.
“We constantly advocated for hunters to be able to use motorized retrieval of downed big game,” said Tom Cadden, the spokesman. But he added that the department is still reviewing the Forest Service proposal.
Tuell said the center is considering appealing the decision, as it has appealed similar off-road rules suggested for the Kaibab’s other two districts.
In both of those cases, forest officials wound up implementing the rules to some degree, allowing motorized vehicles off-road in some portions of the land.