Travel Twist

Game and Fish bashes the feds over off-road restrictions

Tough to imagine, but some folks still frequent our national forests for hushed serenity. A few even exit their vehicles, putting one foot before the other in a quaint pastime known as "walking."

But many more, it seems, can't bear to ambulate beyond earshot of their internal combustion engines. Which means they routinely subject tranquility seekers to their inescapable din.

Their ranks include a growing contingent of motorized hunters, who demand the right to careen their trucks or ATVs into nearly every corner of Arizona's national forests, ostensibly to retrieve the game they just killed, be it massive elk or measly turkeys.

But conservationists say such vehicular intrusions are ravaging habitat and disrupting wildlife. Even traditional hunters—you know, the type who don't blanch at a bit of exertion—blame off-roaders for shredding the silence and scaring away game.

All of which prompted a bit of head-scratching recently when the Arizona Game and Fish Department crusaded to relieve state and local cops of the responsibility of enforcing off-road vehicle restriction on federal lands.

This effort resulted in passage of House Bill 2551, a slice of legislative handiwork that takes direct aim at Arizona's six national forests. The proposed statute—which still awaits Gov. Jan Brewer's approval—traces its roots back to 2005, when the U.S. Forest Service finally acknowledged the widespread damage inflicted by unregulated off-road vehicles and responded with a new policy called the "Travel Management Rule." The rule largely banned cross-country travel in forests and allowed each preserve to establish a fixed set of roadways.

Modest as they were, these changes apparently stuck in the craw of Game and Fish, which essentially argued that many sportsmen (who pay its bills through hunting licenses) are just too feeble or unwilling to retrieve their prey without taking a ride to get there. And so the department has agitated for maximum motorized access across Arizona's forests—despite its own survey showing that even most hunters despise vehicular racket in the outback.

When Game and Fish commissioners couldn't wring concessions from the forests, they turned to Plan B, which was legislation letting state cops and sheriff's deputies off the hook. If the law passes, those officers will no longer be obligated to ticket people they spot driving anywhere on federal land.

The deed was done in a special March 20 teleconference when, according to the minutes, then-commission chairman Jack Husted announced that "the theme has been to not harm our relationship with the forests, but sometimes our federal partners create rules that we and the sheriffs have to enforce, and we would like to have a greater seat at the table." The commission then voted unanimously to support HB 2551.

This would prove to be a parting shot for Husted, who by early April had resigned his post amid allegations that he had sexually harassed female Game and Fish employees.

Either way, department spokesman Jim Paxon denies the move was part of what critics consider an anti-federal jihad by the commission, which also includes plenty of reactionary growling against such mainstream institutions as the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

Instead, Paxon simply calls it an appropriate response to new and perplexing forest restrictions. "With regard to travel management rules, there is a lot of confusion," he says. "Things on one side of the road are OK, and on the other side of the road they're not. So it's really hard to tell our officers they have to write (people) a ticket."

According to Paxon, such encounters could even become teachable moments. If officers "can use a little bit of education and either give a verbal or written warning and achieve compliance," he says, "that's much better than having to write a ticket."

Meanwhile, this strong-arming appears to have already prompted piecemeal acquiescence from the feds. "In fact, we're working with the Tonto National Forest right now," Paxon says, "and their supervisor has offered us cooperating-agency status, so we're sitting at the table as they are formulating their regulations. That's a pretty good working relationship, I think."

But even for forests where Game and Fish didn't have that seat, it's hard to see why the department has worked up such a lather. Consider the Coconino National Forest near Flagstaff, where new restrictions left roughly 70 percent of the roads—covering some 3,000 miles—open to trucks and ATVs. 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.

But if hatred of all things federal was the real driver, Game and Fish certainly found a soul mate in state Sen. Chester Crandell, a rural Republican whose politics are so extreme that even The Arizona Republic—hardly a left-leaning rag—placed him among its top 10 right-wing "kooks." Among other things, Crandell has pushed a constitutional amendment allowing Arizona to seize all federal monuments, forests and national parks within its boundaries.

Now Sen. Crandell was championing HB 2551, which originally concerned regulation of financial institutions, before being stealthily gutted so he could insert the travel management measure.

The problem, apparently, was that neither Game and Fish nor local sheriffs were sufficiently able to bully forest managers. "And their position is that if they didn't have any input," Crandell explains, "then we shouldn't have to spend state resources in running (federal) travel management plans."

While he does recall a sit-down with off-roaders, Crandell concedes he didn't solicit Forest Service input for his bill. (Forest Service spokeswoman Heidi Schewel writes in an email that her agency is "collaborating with members of communities of each of our five ranger districts to develop alternatives which provide access to the Forest ... while at the same time protecting natural resources.")

As for environmental groups, Crandell says that "they had ample opportunity (to raise concerns) as we went through this, and none of them seemed to."

But in an email to the Tucson Weekly, state Sierra Club lobbyist Sandy Bahr writes that conservationists were kept in the dark about the bill. "We did not even know they were crafting it until it appeared as a strike-everything amendment. Game and Fish had talked about the issue and a possible bill, but the details were never apparent until it appeared on an agenda."

Daniel Patterson is Southwest director with Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. He points to this as another sign that Game and Fish has deteriorated into a toady for off-roaders—and an agency where conservation ethics increasingly fall prey to conservative ideology. "Twenty or 30 years ago, it used to be one of the better state wildlife agencies," he says. "Now it's turned into to one of the worst.

"The question is whether this is an agency that's really looking out for wildlife in Arizona, or are they just there to serve anti-environmental politics?"

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