Motor Madness

Pistons rule in the world of Arizona Game and Fish

Time was, a hunter nobly tracked his quarry step by step through the forest primeval. His skills proving worthy, he'd down the prey, field-dress the kill and likewise pack out the proceeds, one foot after another.

Then came GPS, off-road vehicles and bulging waistlines. Now it seems many hunters hanker to do the deed with a bare minimum of human exertion.

If so, they have a splendid friend in the Arizona Game and Fish Department.

Eight years ago, in response to an increasingly trashed landscape, the U.S Forest Service decided to limit the acreage accessible by off-road vehicles. Known as the Travel Management Rule, this new policy would largely ban cross-country travel and restrict machines to a fixed set of roadways.

These modest reforms brought the predictable howls from Game and Fish, which has long toadied to piston-powered sportsmen and their backcountry din. In nearly all cases, the department has agitated for maximum motorized access across Arizona's forests—despite its own survey showing that even a majority of hunters despise the racket made by increasingly abundant trucks and all-terrain vehicles in the outback.

"It is the policy of the Arizona Game and Fish Commission to place high priority on conserving existing access and modes of access upon public lands for hunting, fishing, trapping, shooting, wildlife watching, responsible off highway vehicle use, and other forms of outdoor recreation," says a draft department statement, "and to place high priority on improving access upon such lands in areas of the State where access is currently difficult or nonexistent."

Along with asking for yet more forest roads, Game and Fish has also pushed to let hunters venture a full mile off the road in many areas to retrieve their downed game.

But even as Game and Fish claws to maintain motorized access, the impact on public lands continues to grow. Similar struggles are occurring throughout the West, where nearly 30 million homes now sit within 30 miles of federal public lands. The number of registered off-highway vehicles, or OHVs, tripled across the region between 1998 and 2006; wildcat routes carved by these vehicles on national forests are estimated to stretch for tens of thousands of miles.

Ironically, while the Travel Management Rule has prompted a patchwork of changes across Arizona, it appears motorized travel has been treated quite generously. For instance, roughly 70 percent of the roads—covering some 3,000 miles—remain open to trucks and OHVs on the Coconino National Forest near Flagstaff. And Kaibab National Forest near the Grand Canyon still allows vehicles on 3,100 miles of roads, down from 4,000 miles before the travel management plan took effect.

Although Game and Fish grouses that the rule has been inconsistently applied from one forest to another, Forest Service spokesman Cathie Schmidlin argues that those differences reflect federal flexibility. "It's the recognition that forests have unique recreation and economic issues they need to consider," she says. "You can't have it one-size-fits-all."

Although Southern Arizona's Coronado National Forest has long prohibited cross-country motorized travel, decisions about existing roadways were similarly made on a case-by-case basis—deemed necessary "because our districts are spread so far apart," says spokeswoman Heidi Schewel, "and they each have their own communities of interest. It made more sense to divide it up by district, and respond to the needs of each community."

The result is more than 2,100 miles of roadway on 2,787 square miles of forest remaining open to vehicles.

While Coronado's lack of big, heavy-to-pack-out prey such as elk has mostly kept it out of the Game and Fish cross hairs, elsewhere the department has pushed for extensive retrieval access. To spokesman Jim Paxon, that's just a reflection of changing times. "When I was a kid, we rode horses and packed," he says. "If it was a deer, you actually used a meat saw and cut your animal in half and toted it out on a backpack frame.

"At age 65, I'm probably no longer able to do that, although I'm still in shape and able to go up and down mountains. So the matter of getting game out and not wasting meat is a huge consideration."

In some forests, he says, easy access also means hunters retrieve all of their game, including potentially polluting lead shot contained in the entrails. "We are much more conditioned towards getting the cooperation of those hunters if they're able to put that on an ATV and get it out."

But to Cyndi Tuell, a Southwest conservation advocate with the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity, Game and Fish "is trying to get as many roads open as possible across all the forests in Arizona. They're also pushing for hunters to be allowed to drive off any open road for up to three miles, to pick up everything from turkey to elk, because hunters in Arizona apparently don't know how to hunt the traditional way."

She points out that sportsmen in neighboring New Mexico are apparently more physically robust, since that state's wildlife department has not argued for such sweeping game-retrieval access. The response by New Mexico's Department of Game and Fish to travel management plans on the Santa Fe National Forest certainly do stand in sharp relief to Arizona's combative rhetoric. "As stated in our previous comments," says a 2008 letter to the Forest Service, "the Department strongly supports the ongoing efforts of the Santa Fe and other National Forests in New Mexico to implement the Travel Management Rule, which will limit the number of roads and trails on national forests open to motorized vehicle access."

That missive even raises concerns "about degradation of aquatic and riparian habitats because they are essential for the survival of a majority of wildlife species of New Mexico."

Why the difference? To critics, Arizona Game and Fish is simply beholden to the OHV crowd, regardless of whether their access traumatizes wildlife and pummels sensitive habitat. "We asked them, 'Why are you guys recommending this?'" Tuell recalls from a discussion with department officials. "We told them, 'It's just going to continue the spread of invasive species of plants. It's going to continue to degrade habitat. And the noise alone is going to drive elk further and further into remote wilderness areas, where people who hunt from roads aren't going to be able to get anything.'"

At the time, says Tuell, she felt that Game and Fish officials hadn't really pondered the impacts of motorized access. "But now they're disregarding it. They just don't care. They only care about making sure that hunters can drive wherever they want.'"

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