ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — It was supposed to take the U.S. Forest Service four years to decide which roads and trails throughout the nation's vast network of forests should be designated for travel by motorcycles, four-wheelers and other backcountry vehicles.
Seven years have passed, and forests from Oregon south to Arizona and New Mexico are still struggling to balance the demands of environmentalists, off-roaders and ranchers.
The battle has come to a head on one mesa in northern New Mexico where Hispanics have been ranching and collecting firewood and pinon for centuries.
A state senator and residents of Glorieta Mesa are vowing to take their case to Congress and to federal court after regional forest officials this week denied their appeal of the Santa Fe National Forest's travel management plan. They had complained the plan was racially biased and that an influx of off-roaders would threaten their culture and traditions
"They have awoken a sleeping giant. This is not over. It's not over by a long shot," Democratic Sen. Phil Griego of San Jose told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.
Across the country, similar disputes are playing out as the Forest Service tries to implement a 2005 mandate aimed at curbing unrestricted travel on all 155 forests and 20 national grasslands.
Recreationists have sued over travel management plans on the Clearwater National Forest in Idaho and on forest lands in the Sierra Nevada range.
On the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest in Oregon, officials withdrew their initial plans following public outcry over the protection of traditional activities such as woodcutting, berry picking and mushroom harvesting.
Elsewhere, ranchers have fought to keep forest roads open so they can access their herds and watering holes, while off-roaders have tried to protect access to their favorite spots.
From Oregon to New Mexico, critics are accusing the Forest Service of developing travel plans that fail to address their concerns.
"I think what a lot of people are feeling is that there's no balance," said Karen Budd-Falen, a Cheyenne, Wyo.-based attorney who deals with environmental and property issues.
On Glorieta Mesa, residents have long complained that irresponsible off-roaders are threatening their livelihood by tearing up the forest they depend on. There are stories about livestock being chased, fences being cut, earthen stock tanks being used as ramps and windmill piping being disassembled and used for mud bogging.
Forest officials have denied the claims of discrimination and said the concerns of many groups were considered when crafting the plan, which specifies which roads and trails across the 1.6 million acres of the Santa Fe forest are open to vehicles. The forest held dozens of meetings and received more than 3,000 comments over the last seven years.
The agency reiterated in documents related to the appeal that the Santa Fe forest followed federal laws and policies in developing the travel plan.
While the Forest Service is used to considering scientific denominators such as watersheds or endangered species, critics say getting the agency to give equal weight to factors such as culture and tradition has proven more elusive.
Daniel Patterson, southwest director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said both ranchers and land managers are in a tough situation.
"It's been different from forest to forest. But still, on too many the planning really hasn't done the job of right-sizing the road system," he said. "It's a matter of access and excess, and it's the job of the Forest Service to balance that."
On the Santa Fe National Forest, the travel plan designates nearly 2,500 miles of trails, roads and areas where vehicles are allowed. On Glorieta Mesa, the plan cuts access to illegally created roads but allows all classes of vehicles on the remaining roads.
Mesa residents accuse the Forest Service of turning their community, which is largely made up of Hispanic and low-income families, into "a sacrifice zone" for off-roading.
They had pushed for only street-legal vehicles to be allowed but claim their requests were rebuffed and that derogatory remarks about Mexicans and ranchers were made during conversations with agency employees. Forest officials deny those claims.
"We as minorities have been taking it in the shorts ever since the U.S. government came into our part of the country," Griego said. "It's time for us, as a people and as a culture, to stand up and say enough is enough."
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