By Nick Worth
News that a U.S. Forest Service plan to limit how long an unoccupied camp may be left in the Coconino, Kaibab and Prescott national forests had been reversed turned out the be more than a little exaggerated.
In a Dec. 11 statement, District 6 State Representative Brenda Barton (R-Payson) said she was, “greatly pleased” at the sudden change of heart by the Forest Service.
“This is a wonderful example of how federal agencies can work with local communities to resolve issues like these,” said Barton. “It’s the holiday season and the Forest Service has finally gotten into the spirit.”
The announcement of a “reversal” was not correct, according to Coconino Forest officials.
The original plan, announced in an Aug. 16 press release from the Coconino National Forest, said hunters and other forest users would no longer be allowed to park unoccupied trailers and motorhomes in the national forests for longer than 72 hours.
“In previous seasons, law enforcement officers have found numerous trailers parked in the forests for the purpose of reserving a location for the entire hunting season, and also because the individuals did not want to haul their trailers back and forth.
“Parking a trailer in the forest for this purpose violates Forest Service regulations. If trailers are left unattended for more than 72 hours, the Forest Service considers them abandoned property and may remove them from the forest. Violators can also be cited for this action. Enforcing these regulations protects the property and allows recreational users equal access to national forests. This regulation applies to all national forests in northern Arizona, including the Coconino, Kaibab and Prescott forests.”
The announcement resulted in a letter from the Navajo County Board of Supervisors to Coconino National Forest Supervisor Earl Stewart expressing the board’s concerns with the 72-hour rule. In the letter the board expressed “the utmost respect for the rights and property of an individual,” and noted that “we depend on the numerous contributions that hunters, anglers and other outdoor enthusiasts bring to our communities.”
The supervisors also acknowledged the “considerable time and resources that they (hunters and forest users) put into planning for an enjoyable and rewarding experience in our national and state forests,” and that in the planning and preparation for a stay in the forest, an early arrival at the camping spot is part of the process.
“Taken together, this action by your office is bad policy, and sends the wrong message to a segment of our population which is highly respectful and extremely generous to the management of our public lands,” the supervisors wrote. “In the future, we would expect a more considerate and more respectful posture toward the hunting and angling communities, and ask that you present your policies in a fashion that considers the social, economic and safety aspects of what you present to the public.”
In a Sept. 12 letter to Stewart, Game and Fish Director Larry Voyles requested that all national forests in Arizona return to a plan that allows visitors or their property, including trailers, to remain on the forest for 14 days, whether or not the property is continuously attended.
When a change of the announced policy was not forthcoming, both the Arizona Game and Fish Commission and department lashed back at the Forest Service in a Nov. 12 press release.
“The Arizona Game and Fish Commission and department are opposed to this unprecedented application of state and federal law to hunters who have absolutely no intent of abandoning their property,” according to the press release. “A stay limit of 14 days has been in effect on national forest lands for decades, and is well understood and accepted by sportsmen and recreationists.”
Coconino Forest Deputy Public Affairs Officer Dean Jones told The Tribune-News in November the intent behind the rule was to allow access to the forest to everybody.
“In the past, people have been leaving their property in the forest for four or five days without using the forest,” Jones said. “The 14-day limit still applies. We don’t have a problem with that at all.”
He said the biggest misunderstanding was that hunters and campers were under the impression they would have to move their camp after 72 hours.
“That’s not the case,” said Jones. “We don’t want people to leave property in the forest unattended and unoccupied.”
He said the 14-day stay limit rule was designed to keep people from homesteading in the forest.
“That’s what we’re trying to prevent,” Jones said.
According to Barton’s press release, “The USFS has recently reversed its seemingly sudden policy of restricting hunters to a 72-hour rule. Instead, they have made it clear that sportsmen may keep their trailers set up for the regular two-week period, and in many cases covering the term of their hunting permit.”
Barton added, “…this could have had negative economic impacts on several of the local communities in my district and I truly applaud the Forest Service decision to reverse their previous action.”
However, a look at the Coconino National Forest website, under the link “Notice to Hunters,” brought up the following statement:
“Leaving trailers, motorhomes, tents and other property in the forest for the purpose of reserving that spot for future use is prohibited. Title 36 Code of Federal Regulation (CFR) 261.10(e).”
“There really was no reversal of policy. It was just misinterpreted,” Coconino Forest public affairs officer Brady Smith said last Friday. “The Arizona Game and Fish Department misinterpreted our announcement and then misinformed people,” said Smith. “They made it sound very Draconian.
“If people are out hunting and they’re gone for over 72 hours, no, they won’t have their property taken,” Smith said.
Smith said the 72-hour rule was intended to keep people from “trashing the forest” by leaving unattended vehicles and campsites in the woods, and agreed with Jones’ statement from November that the 14-day rule is also a tool to keep people from homesteading in the forest.
Smith also stressed that the 14-day stay limit is a federal law and has been in effect for a long time. Campers using the national forest are allowed to stay only 14 days within a 30-day period before they must leave.
He added that simply moving your camp to a different spot or even a different national forest is not enough. Following a 14-day stay, there has to be a 16-day wait before a camper returns for another 14-day stay.
“That holds true for all national forests, across the country,” said Smith.
The Tribune-News asked Barton’s office to comment on the matter and received an email reply from George Khalaf, Barton’s campaign manager.
“The reports the representative received from Gila County, with local media accounts, seemed to feed the ‘misinterpretation’ of the issue,” said Khalaf. “Representative Barton was responding to initial reports of sportsmen returning to their camp sites to find their RVs had been removed, allegedly by Forest Service personnel.
“The representative is quite satisfied that the matter is no longer an issue, and is pleased with the outcome,” Khalaf said.
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By Nick Worth