The Sandoval Signpost

An Independent Monthly Newspaper Serving the Community since 1988

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Dave Rockwell with trail bikes above the Valle Caldera

Dave Rockwell with trail bikes above the Valle Caldera

A ride on the dark side

—TY BELKNAP
Last spring, several trail bikers expressed their displeasure with my blatantly-biased articles regarding motorized use of a section of the national forest east of Placitas. I was writing about the U.S. Forest Service Travel Management Plan, a federally-mandated public process to develop regulations for motorized off-road travel.

The conflict between treehuggers and motorheads is getting ugly, especially regarding the Santa Fe National Forest plan—which includes the Jemez Mountains. Neither side seems willing to compromise. A September 26 article in the Santa Fe New Mexican described a battle that has “pitted well-organized environmentalists and local residents against equally well-organized dirt bike and all-terrain vehicle enthusiasts.”

“Motorized recreation is the latest, greatest, and growing threat to our national forests,” John Horning, executive director of the Santa Fe-based environmental group Forest Guardians, says. “And these travel management planning processes are basically giving carte blanche to the motorized recreational industry to go where they want to go.”

Not true, says Forest Planner Rob Potts, who estimates that there are approximately ten thousand miles of roads in the Santa Fe National Forest presently open to motorized vehicles, and that the latest draft rule would only designate approximately three thousand miles for their continued use—a seventy percent reduction.

Motorized users feel that the USFS and environmentalists are trying to keep them out, even though federal law considers dirt bikes and ATVs one of many approved recreational uses of the forest. A lot of law-abiding, nature-loving citizens are heavily invested in a sport that requires a place to play. But as Potts says in the New Mexican, “There are people who look at motorized vehicles and see pure evil.”

I myself felt like I was taking a ride on the dark side when I agreed to accompany my friend Dave Rockwell on a trail-bike ride in the Jemez Mountains last month. He had a spare 200cc Kawasaki KDX—a very cool machine. It had been over twenty-five years since I last rode a motorcycle, having made a deal with the God while flying over handlebars toward certain death. I hoped that God and my fellow tree-huggers would excuse a little investigative journalism.

It’s been nearly fifty years since Dave mounted a Briggs and Stratton lawn mower motor on his bike and drove into the woods, but he was practically giddy with excitement over the ride that lay ahead. He’s been riding in the Jemez Mountains since the mid-eighties and says that he can see more forest in one day than most people see in a lifetime. He says that dirt bikes have a fairly benign effect on the environment and resents being lumped together with other off-road vehicles.

We set out on Forest Road 144 just off the road to Fenton Lake and rode along the rim of San Antonio Canyon. Dave stopped to wait while I poked along, trying to get a feel for the bike. There were single track trails alongside, but it was hard enough for me just to negotiate the loose dirt, rocks, and ruts in the road that took us all the way to the fence line above the Valle Grande. At ninety-five hundred feet, this part of the mountain is usually snow-packed at this time of year, but there were only patches. It was a warm last day of hunting season, but we didn’t see any hunters or game. What we did see were panoramic views across the wide Caldera to the Pajarito Ski area and Redondo Peak, north past the back side of the landmark Pedra Nol above Abiquiu. We saw forty-eight miles of beautiful national forest.

It seemed that there was plenty of room for all recreational users to share the treasure. We didn’t tear up the land or disturb any hikers—there weren’t any hikers. Most use of the public lands is crowded into easily accessible popular destinations. As dirt bikers are restricted from parts of the forest, trails that they made and maintain will probably disappear, denying access to hikers and mountain bikers. Overuse of limited areas once they are designated for motorized use could lead to even more environmental degradation. The draft of the Travel Management Plan also calls for drastic restrictions on dispersed camping. Car camping would be confined to designated areas. The new regulations and factionalization of recreational interest groups could keep a lot of people out of the forest, leading to less public demand for recreational opportunities. Without this demand, there could be continued deterioration of government-supported preservation of public lands.

By the time we headed back, I had started to get a pretty good feel for my bike. I learned to stand on the pegs, steer with foot and knee pressure, maintain speed uphill, and downshift at the right time. I found myself trying to drag a foot when the rear tire fishtailed in soft dirt around corners, and I wound up going way too fast—and having way too much fun.

Best of all, I survived, but from now on I’ll stick with my non-motorized mountain bike, keep writing those blatantly anti-motorized articles, and might just abstain from motorcycles for another twenty-five years (unless, of course, somebody asks me to go riding again).

As it stands now, motorized users have the right to drive anywhere they want in the national forest and BLM lands that are not specifically off limits. They can drive over trees, through sensitive riparian areas, and across wildlife corridors. Single tracks created by motorcycles are taken over by ATVs and then by full-size off-road vehicles, causing wide swathes of destruction and erosion. The government has to do something to control the lunatic fringe that delights in laying waste to our public lands. Neither extreme will be happy if the new rules go into effect, as planned, in 2009. Hopefully, it will work for most of us.

Ray Ring

Ray Ring

Two weeks in the West

—RAY RING, HIGH COUNTRY NEWS

“Divorce is just terrible. It’s one of Satan’s best tools to kill America.”

—Idaho State Rep. Dick Harwood, R, who is part of a state task force focused on finding solutions to the decline of the Idaho family.

November is the most political month, for better or worse, even in odd-numbered years.

Thus we’ve just learned that two more of the West’s top Republicans are quitting: Wyoming Rep. Barbara Cubin and Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo both announced that they won’t run for re-election when their terms expire next year. They’re joining a crowd on the sidelines, as four other party leaders — Idaho Sen. Larry Craig, Colorado Sen. Wayne Allard, New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici and Arizona Rep. Rick Renzi — have already announced they’re quitting.

Cubin says she needs to spend time with her husband, who is ill. Tancredo says he’s done all he can in the House (mostly trying to choke Latino immigration, unsuccessfully) and now he’ll focus on running for president (a race he’ll almost certainly lose). Some of the other quitters are mired in scandal. General message: It’s a bad time to be a Republican candidate, with President George W. Bush’s ratings as low as a sunset.

They announced their decision to be toast — far in advance of next November’s big election — in order to give their party a chance to settle on good replacement candidates. Still, those six Western seats in Congress will suddenly have no incumbents. It raises Democrats’ hopes of taking one or more in the swirl of the region’s political swing dance.

Meanwhile, in actual elections, there were two intriguing themes: Voters in fast-growing Western communities — rural as well as urban — showed support for land-use planning and candidates who would manage development. The other theme could be called convergence politics.

Foremost, Oregon voters passed Measure 49, restoring many land-use regulations that had been blown apart in 2004 by the West’s most famous ballot initiative ever, Measure 37. Now the regs are like the porridge Goldilocks settled on — not too hot and not too cold — and Oregon landowners can build modest developments that suit the character of neighborhoods.

Then there’s the convergent part: Measure 49 was endorsed by the Oregon Farm Bureau, which often spurns regulations but now wants to protect farmland. It won a majority of votes in several conservative rural counties. Statewide, it won an impressive 61 percent, largely thanks to the usual green suspects in Portland and Eugene.

Elsewhere, voters in Helena, Mont., and Boulder County and Longmont, Colo., decided to tax themselves to buy more open-space lands or improve parks. Candidates who took pro-planning positions won local races in Idaho’s Teton County (recently discovered by developers) and in metro Boise. Three such candidates won city council seats in Las Cruces, N.M., including Nathan Small, who’s a “wilderness protection organizer” for the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance.

Seattle had a different kind of convergence. Two ballot measures there would’ve addressed transportation gridlock with new mass transit and roads, funded by new taxes. The Sierra Club joined conservative anti-tax folks in opposing the package, and voters rejected it. The Sierra Club, concerned about emissions that cause global warming, wants new mass transit without new roads. The group’s exit polls showed that most voters feel the same way. Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels and the enviros vow to present voters with a light-rail proposal next year, hoping it’ll pass on its own.

Nearly every Westerner in Congress voted for the oasis-like Water Resources Development Act, which would spend $23 billion on water projects scattered from Florida’s Everglades to the Yakima River port in Washington. They piled on as Congress overrode Bush’s veto of the bill. This is the same Congress that can’t override Bush on Iraq policy. Water-project convergence is truly unstoppable.

In Montana, moderate Republican legislator Bill Jones of Bigfork announced he won’t run for re-election next year, because he thinks the Republican Party has gone too hard-line right. “My party has pushed a lot of people like me out,” Jones told the Billings Gazette. The 68-year-old dentist opposes abortion, but converges with independents and Democrats on education and health-care issues.

In Arizona, first-time congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, a Democrat, married a NASA astronaut, in a ceremony at an organic farm south of Tucson — a personal convergence. And in Nevada, Las Vegas magicians Siegfried & Roy announced their endorsement of Hillary Clinton for president.

This article originally appeared in High Country News (www.hcn.org), which covers the West's communities and natural-resource issues from Paonia, Colorado.

The West’s forests will never be the same

—PAUL VANDEVELDER

Last year’s Indian summer fires in Montana were so intense, so awesome in their fury, that they even spooked veteran firefighters. Pilots dumping retardant on the Jungle Fire southeast of Livingston, Montana, reported flames jumping five hundred feet above the tree line. For comparison, imagine a wall of flames leaping over the Washington Monument. Hotshots, those elite firefighters delivered to fire lines from the air, dropped their shovels and gaped. What they were seeing, as super-dry fuel morphed into explosive gas, was a fundamental change now taking place in the chemistry of our forests.

That was right about the time that former Montana Senator Conrad Burns (R), called a group of exhausted firefighters lazy, good-for-nothing layabouts. It turned out that the crew was just catching some Zs on an airport tarmac after coming off a thirty-six-hour stint on the fire line. This summer, Senator Burns was gone; the Hotshots were busier than ever.

I have a clear memory of that episode because I was working on a story about climate change, and climate modelers at NASA’s Goddard Institute told me that all of their predictions for climate change were accelerating. A couple of years ago, the low end on the projected increase in global temperature was 1.5 degrees centigrade. That window, a best-case scenario in the climate models, is now closed. The bottom limb of the arc is at now at two degrees centigrade. The physicists who watch these models, as data pour in from reporting stations around the world, have their fingers crossed. The consensus among scientists is that if we hit three degrees centigrade hotter, we need to start looking for another planet.

What the NASA people were finding seemed to correlate with close observations of a friend of mine in Billings. Bob Ruble, a longtime resident of the Yellowstone Valley, told me that timber on his property has been tested, and it is now drier than kiln-dried lumber. “This entire region seems to be readjusting to desert-like conditions,” he says.

Rich Cronn, a research geneticist based at the U.S. Forest Service lab in Corvallis, Oregon, agrees. “Plant species across the West are under an enormous amount of stress,” says Cronn. “Conditions that once made life possible for a lot of species in marginal areas are changing very quickly. Fifty years from now, most of our forests are going to look very different than they do today.”

How different? One answer is that they might be gone. For a forest, climate change means two things—bigger fires, and lots more of them. Meanwhile, Cronn says, “We’re all working on the models that will give us a better understanding of what’s coming next. It’s a fluid situation.”

Cronn and most of his colleagues believe that forests will begin to die off, and first to go will be the forests of Southern California, New Mexico, and Arizona. That’s because very few species in those forests have developed fire tolerance. Next, high-elevation conifer forests in the Southwest are virtually certain to vanish. That means the sparsely wooded islands of trees across the high country of New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Nevada, and California could be gone in a generation. When the last Ice Age retreated thousands of years ago, the world it left behind allowed those stands of white and limber pines to take root and flourish. Today, say Cronn and his colleagues, those conditions are gone.

“High-elevation forests will have a tough time coming back if they burn,” Cronn says. “The conditions necessary for seedling survival just aren’t there.”

That means that unless something unforeseen happens, the entire high-country ecosystem in the West is going to undergo radical change, including the dislocation of thousands of wildlife species for whom these forests are home. If and when the island forests of conifers are lost to fire, they’re not going to reseed. Grasslands will quickly move up in elevation and take over.

Mature conifer forests that don’t burn in coming decades will probably survive the initial change in conditions, says Cronn, but they won’t form a beachhead against climate change because those trees won’t reseed, either.

“Even if they survive, they won’t be able to replace themselves, so when they die off—that’s pretty much the end of the road. These forests won’t be coming back any time soon,” Cronn says.

So if you happen to be looking for a job with longtime security, say, for the next fifty years, you might look into the Hotshots. They’re going to be busy.

Writers on the Range is a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org).

 

 

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