Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Proposal to shape access to Sonoran Desert

WASHINGTON - This fall, Arizonans have the rare opportunity to help shape the future of 1.4 million acres of Sonoran Desert lands that are home to bighorn sheep, tortoises and the giant, iconic saguaro cactus.

The Bureau of Land Management is working on a plan that will guide Arizona BLM officials in managing the Sonoran Desert National Monument and other federal lands in the lower Sonoran Desert for the next 15 to 20 years. Environmentalists, ranchers, off-roaders, shooting enthusiasts, hikers, hunters and wildlife watchers are already gearing up to try to ensure that their often-competing interests are protected by the plan.

Sonoran Desert National Monument

After laboring for nearly a decade, the agency has come up with a draft plan and has scheduled public meetings in Arizona throughout October. The BLM also will take written comment through Nov. 25.

The final plan, expected to be released in about a year, will replace an interim plan that has been in use since then-President Bill Clinton created the national monument in January 2001. It also will replace obsolete plans that cover the rest of the BLM's land in the lower Sonoran Desert.

The new plans will take into account the area's unprecedented population growth and urban expansion, the growing demand for recreation on public lands, the rising interest in solar-energy development and the latest environmental and wildlife science.

"These are awe-inspiring landscapes and wildlife that have shaped the American West," said Matt Skroch, executive director of the Arizona Wilderness Coalition. "It's incumbent on us to protect these lands so that future generations can enjoy them."

But to do that, the BLM must find a way to strike a balance between preserving wildlife, wilderness and solitude and allowing high-decibel recreation such as target shooting and off-road-vehicle riding. The plan also tackles where economic activities such as livestock grazing and solar-energy development should be allowed and where they should be excluded.

"There are going to be people who disagree with what we've proposed," said Emily Garber, manager of the BLM's Lower Sonoran Desert Field Office. "We've tried to do the best we can balancing all the different interests and resources. This is a draft plan. If people look at what we've proposed and feel that it could be improved, then we certainly want to hear that."

Limiting activities

The agency's proposal recommends separate plans for the 486,400-acre Sonoran Desert National Monument, which spans 25 miles on each side of Interstate 8 south of Phoenix, and for the 930,200-acre Lower Sonoran Decision Area, which lies west of the monument and stretches from Maricopa County to the Ajo area.

The monument would receive a higher level of protection from activities that might harm its landscape, which includes historic trails and ancient petroglyphs as well as rugged mountain peaks and saguaro forests.

Under the plan for the monument, target shooting - but not hunting - would be banned, the land available for grazing cattle would be cut by almost 100,000 acres and the routes open to off-highway vehicles would be reduced by nearly 33 percent. Nearly 111,000 acres would be managed to protect their wilderness characteristics, which means preserving them as places where visitors can enjoy natural beauty and solitude.

In the Lower Sonoran Decision Area, target shooting would still be allowed and the number of acres available for livestock grazing would remain the same. It is not yet clear how off-road-vehicle enthusiasts would be affected because the BLM is still doing an inventory of designated roads there. Once that is done, the BLM will propose which routes should be open to off-highway vehicles and ask for public comment, Garber said.

The agency is proposing that 55,400 acres of the Lower Sonoran area be managed to protect its wilderness characteristics. BLM officials said that acreage has the best wilderness characteristics, meaning the areas are natural and primitive, with few signs of human activity.

Environmentalists who have reviewed the 1,400-plus-page plan generally commend the BLM for its proposed management of the monument but criticize the agency for not going far enough to protect the land outside the monument.

Skroch and Sandy Bahr, director of the Grand Canyon Chapter of the Sierra Club, would like to see about five times as much acreage protected than what is now proposed. They also say the BLM should tell the public now - rather than later - what the designated routes for off-road vehicles will be in the Lower Sonoran area.

"Off-road vehicles are the biggest threat," Bahr said. "There are too many people who think it's OK to rip out across the desert."


Spokesmen for the Arizona Off Highway Vehicle Coalition and the national Blue Ribbon Coalition, which advocates for motorized vehicles to have access to public lands, said they are still reviewing the BLM plan.

"I haven't had a chance to go through it, but I'm scared to death," said Brian Hawthorne, public-lands policy director for the Blue Ribbon Coalition. "Our main concern is that they'll eliminate any trail or primitive-road opportunities for us. That's usually what happens - only the main roads are kept open. Just like the hikers don't like having to stick to the main roads, neither do we."

The National Rifle Association already has come out against the ban on target shooting in the national monument, urging its members to fax or mail comments to the BLM opposing the proposal.

"One-half million acres closed to one segment of the recreating public is unacceptable," the NRA said in a notice to its members on its website.

The BLM is recommending the target-shooting ban primarily for safety reasons, Garber said. She said the natural backdrop of the monument area makes it difficult to ensure that bullets fired at targets don't end up far afield, near traffic corridors. There also has been gunshot damage to saguaros and to petroglyphs, she said. There have been no reported injuries.

Garber emphasized that the ban would not affect hunters and that target shooters would still have access to the 930,200-acre Lower Sonoran area.

Arizona cattlemen said they will raise their opposition to the grazing restrictions in the monument at a special meeting Wednesday in Phoenix that the BLM has scheduled to focus specifically on the issue.

When Clinton created the monument in 2001, he included a requirement that the BLM look at whether grazing is compatible with trying to preserve the monument's unique landscape.

The BLM is proposing to reduce the number of acres where grazing is allowed within the monument from 252,200 to 157,210 to protect vegetation in areas that have suffered from drought and overgrazing. Overgrazing can cause soil erosion as cattle munch up grass and other plants that would normally retain water and help prevent the runoff that can pollute streams and rivers.

Basilio Aja, executive vice president of the Arizona Cattle Feeders' Association, said ranchers graze cattle on the BLM land only during wet years, when there is sufficient vegetation.

"If you reduce the livestock foraging in an area that has probably been grazed for over 300 years, you're going to leave those areas open to some pretty catastrophic fires," Aja said.

Garber, with the BLM, said the proposal is a work in progress and that officials will consider public comments carefully before coming out with a final version next fall.

"The kind of comments we want to hear are not simply 'thumbs-up' or 'thumbs-down,' " Garber said. "We want to hear how we can improve the plan. Is there some information that we didn't consider? Are there some alternatives we should have considered that we didn't? Now is the time to get involved and tell us what you think."

Public meetings on federal lands

Tuesday6-9 p.m.Phoenix public meeting
BLM National Training Center
9828 N. 31st Ave. Phoenix, AZ 85051
* Must present photo ID
Wednesday6-9 p.m.Public meeting on grazing compatibility at Sonoran Desert National Monument
BLM National Training Center
9828 N. 31st Ave. Phoenix, AZ 85051
*Must present photo ID
Oct. 126-9 p.m.Mesa public meeting
Red Mountain Multigenerational Center
7550 E. Adobe Road Mesa, AZ 85207
Oct. 136-9 p.m.Casa Grande public meeting
Vista Grande High School cafeteria
1556 N. Arizola Road Casa Grande, AZ 85122
Oct. 256-9 p.m.Buckeye public meeting
Youngker High School
3000 S. Apache Road Buckeye, AZ 85326
Oct. 266-9 p.m.Gila Bend public meeting
Unified School Dist. Auditorium
308 N. Martin Ave. Gila Bend, AZ 85337
Oct. 276-9 p.m.Ajo public meeting
Ajo Community Center
290 W. Fifth St. Ajo, AZ 85321

To receive news about the planning process, e-mail the BLM at: blm_az_ls_sdnm_plan@blm.gov.

Or write to: BLM Lower Sonoran Field Office, LS-SDNM RMP, 21605 N. Seventh Ave., Phoenix, AZ 85027.

For more information, call the office at 623-580-5500 or leave a voice-mail message at 623-580-5526.

by Erin Kelly Republic Washington Bureau Oct. 3, 2011 12:00 AM

Proposal to shape access to Sonoran Desert

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