SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN Associated Press Writer ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP)
Hundreds of miles of dirt roads and trails cut through northern New Mexico's mountains. The hard part is deciding which ones to keep open and which to close. It's a scenario that's playing itself out across the country as the U.S. Forest Service tries to designate by 2010 a system of motorized routes that will provide recreational opportunities while still protecting America's natural resources. In northern New Mexico, offroad enthusiasts and environmentalists typically arch enemies in the travel management debate have found something to agree on. But it won't make the process any easier for federal land managers. Both sides say the Carson National Forest is going about travel management planning in an unusual way, one they fear will leave the public without a chance to comment on potential impacts to soil, water quality, wildlife and recreational access. "I'm concerned because there's really nothing the public can look at and say 'Oh, the impacts to water quality are going to be this, so yeah I support it,' or 'No, I don't.' No matter what side of the issue you're on, you don't have any information," said Cyndi Tuell, southwestern conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity. At issue is the proposed action that the Carson forest released in July. It calls for closing nearly 270 miles of existing roads to motor vehicles on three ranger districts, prohibiting cross-country travel and adding corridors for camping. But absent is a comprehensive environmental analysis of the proposal, critics say. Carson officials said Friday they are working on an environmental assessment. However, the public likely won't have a chance to see the document until after the comment period ends Aug. 15. While federal law gives forest officials some discretion when deciding whether public comment is needed on an environmental assessment, many forests have analyzed the impacts of their travel plans, prepared reports and have given people time to weigh in. Critics say they are aware of only one other forest that took a similar path to the one being taken on the Carson. On the Sawtooth National Forest in Idaho, officials spent a couple years gathering public comment so they could develop a plan for designating which roads and trails would be open to motorcycles, four-wheelers and other off-highway vehicles. However, no official comment period was held on the plan's environmental assessment, said Brad Brooks, a regional conservation associate with The Wilderness Society in Idaho. "I think it really creates a lot of distrust when they won't even allow a simple comment period on an environmental assessment," he said. "In the mind of the public, if there's nothing to hide, then why not let people at least have a transparent process."