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Forest Service OKs massive off-road rally without review

Mexican spotted owl. Photo courtesy USFWS.

Conservation advocates may sue to block future editions of the jamboree on the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — When it comes to policing the annual Rainbow Gathering, the U.S. Forest Service can pretty harsh, but apparently that same hardline doesn’t apply to off-roaders, at least in Arizona, where the agency has apparently developed a cozy relationship with motorized users.

According the conservation groups, the Forest Service authorized a six-day off-road rally without doing any environmental studies or reviewing the impacts to rare and sensitive forest species.

Based on promotional materials for the off-road jamboree, the event is at least partly commercial and requires Forest Service review and permitting. Part of the route is through areas affected by the Wallow Fire, where new vegetation is just becoming established, and it also appears that there is some commercial photography associated with the off-road rally.

All of that suggests that the Forest Service is failing to meet its legal obligations by allowing the event to occur without proper permitting.

The agency originally approved the event in 2008 for five years under a categorical exclusion, then extended the permit for five years in 2011. For 2012, the Forest Service said no special use permit is required — despite Forest Service regulations requiring special-use authorization for events where fees are charged.

The off-road jamboree is charging up to 500 participants between $100 and $150 each to participate in events, including organized rides on Forest Service roads and trails. Past jamborees have included hundreds of participants driving off-road vehicles on forest trails.

The Center for Biological Diversity is concerned that the rally could harm lands affected by the Wallow Fire, including valuable habitat for Mexican spotted owls and Mexican gray wolves. It is now exploring legal options to ensure the event does not irrevocably harm local wildlife.

“The Forest Service is turning a blind eye to the impacts that a large, organized motorized event could have on fragile habitat for Mexican spotted owls, Mexican gray wolves, and dozens of other species already hurt by the Wallow fire,” said Cyndi Tuell, Southwest conservation advocate at the Center.

“Given hundreds of people driving noisy ORVs through fragile habitat, the Forest Service should follow the law and assess the impacts on land, wildlife and other forest users seeking a quiet retreat in the woods,” said Tuell. “The Forest Service’s refusal to require permits and analyses gives new meaning to the name Outlaw Jamboree. That’s for sure.”

Hikers seeking to use Forest Service trails for purely volunteer hikes — where no fees are charged at all — have recently been required to pay for special-use permits.

“It’s absurd that people who simply want to hike in the woods on open trails and educate themselves on native wildlife like wolves are forced to obtain expensive permits, while this large-scale, commercially sponsored event is blithely allowed to skirt the laws that protect our shared resources,” said Tuell.

The Forest Service plans to monitor the off-road event. Monitoring and law-enforcement costs are usually recovered when event organizers obtain proper permits; yet because the Forest Service failed to require a permit for this event, taxpayers will bear the costs of monitoring. Liability for any injuries to participants could also fall to the Forest Service and taxpayers.

“The jamboree stands to make tens of thousands of dollars on this event, yet its organizers won’t pay a dime of the untold costs to American taxpayers. Frankly it’s a disgrace,” Tuell said.

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