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.