UPDATE: 5/17, letter in Republic. 5/15, Arizona Republic editorial on this and SB 1167 in the AZ Legislature. 5/14, In addition to the front page story in the Arizona Republic, this good news is covered in USA Today, Arizona Daily Star, Tucson Citizen, the San Diego Union-Tribune and many broadcast outlets. Also, BLM published the full protective order in today's Federal Register.
TUCSON -- I'm proud to be involved in cooperatively helping public employees protect a large part of the Sonoran Desert National Monument from off-road vehicle traffic for at least two years or more, to help damaged landscapes recover from the environmental toll of growing motorized abuse.
Agency e-mails released this week by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) confirm the action. This would be the first long-term ORV ban on BLM public lands in Arizona due to natural resource damage.
Under orders to be published this week in the Federal Register, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which manages the monument, will declare nearly 55,000 acres (approximately four times the land area of Manhattan) off-limits to all ORV traffic for “up to two years or more, depending on the restoration success,” according to the acting monument manager. An estimated 90 miles of ORV routes will also be closed to motorized use. This no-ORV zone lies southeast of the North Maricopa Mountains wilderness.
“BLM is taking a good first step toward protecting the Sonoran Desert National Monument from off-road excess,” stated Southwest PEER Director Daniel Patterson, an ecologist who formerly worked with BLM. “It is the first of what likely will be many more ORV bans to shield public lands that cannot handle the growing motorized traffic and are literally being ripped apart.”
Located between Phoenix and Tucson, the nearly half-million acre Sonoran Desert National Monument is part of BLM's National Landscape Conservation System and includes some of the most scenic and biologically rich desert lands in North America. The Monument has also seen an exponential increase in ORV traffic that, by BLM’s own admission, is beyond its ability to effectively manage. Damage to its lands has reached the point where, last year, agency officials suggested a monument-wide prohibition on ORV use.
Unfortunately, the deteriorating situation at the Sonoran Desert National Monument is becoming prevalent on public lands across the West. Beyond the environmental toll, off-road vehicles are now, by far, the number one law enforcement problem on federal lands in the Southwest, according to agency statistics compiled by PEER and Rangers for Responsible Recreation. Increasingly, agencies such as the BLM and U.S. Forest Service are overwhelmed by the sheer number of off-roaders, widespread disregard for agency route restrictions and the enormous, cumulative damage inflicted on the landscapes.
For the Sonoran Desert National Monument, the length of the ORV-ban and the restoration criteria will be much scrutinized. The Federal Register notice will spell out those terms and go into effect 30 days later, sometime in mid-June.
“This protective order is long overdue, and two years will likely not be enough time to heal the land from the extensive ORV damage.” added Patterson. "This is a good move, but BLM must do more to truly manage the Sonoran Desert and other monuments for conservation, rather than for how much abuse they can withstand."
Don Hood, vice president of the Arizona Off-Highway Vehicle Coalition, said his organization understands that a lot of damage has occurred in the desert area south of Phoenix.
“The explosion of off-highway vehicles has led to an increase of people out there who think this is just a game,” Hood said. “They don't know the rules, they don't know where to go, they don't know right from wrong...”
Those who violate the order by heading into the closed area with a motor vehicle could face a $1,000 fine and up to one year in prison, said Pamela Mathis, public-affairs specialist for the BLM.
Congress is investigating ORV abuses and related problems on America's lands. Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), representing a district that includes the Sonoran Desert National Monument, held the first ever US House oversight hearings on ORVs in March. Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) will hold similar oversight hearings in the US Senate June 5.
Call 623.580.5566 to volunteer and help BLM monitor and implement these protections on your public lands.