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New Mexico wants federal help

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Environment Secretary Ron Curry has asked for help with off-road impacts

By Susan M. Bryan

ALBUQUERQUE — New Mexico Environment Secretary Ron Curry  has asked the federal government for help with what he called an “urgent issue” affecting the state’s water quality.

Curry is taking aim at off-road vehicle trails on the Santa Fe National Forest in northern New Mexico, saying in a letter addressed to regional officials with the Environmental Protection Agency that fragile soils and riparian ecosystems are being destroyed.

“I personally toured an area of the Jemez Mountains affected by ORV and ATV use in 2009 and expressed my concerns to the Santa Fe National Forest supervisor regarding the impacts I observed to state surface water resources. One year later, ORV and ATVs are still uncontrolled on our national forest public lands,” Curry wrote in his letter.

Curry is requesting $150,000 in EPA funds to hire a contractor to study and quantify the contribution of off-roading activity to sediment and turbidity impairment in streams and wetlands. The money would go toward identifying areas where off-highway vehicle use has the greatest impact on water quality so land managers can focus their mitigation efforts, he said.

The Environment Department is focusing on the Jemez Mountains, a popular recreation area between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, but his office said unchecked off-highway vehicle use is an issue in New Mexico’s other four national forests as well.

Cindy Chojnacky, a spokeswoman for the Santa Fe National Forest, acknowledged that unmanaged vehicle recreation has been a problem nationwide and that concerns about the impacts are what prompted the U.S. Forest Service to begin its travel management process a few years ago.

The Santa Fe Forest plans to release a draft environmental impact statement on its travel plan later this summer, she said.

Marcy Leavitt, head of the New Mexico Environment Department’s Water and Wastewater Division, said Wednesday that the Forest Service’s travel management plan doesn’t directly address water quality impacts so the state will have to talk with forest officials about areas that might need restoration by getting rid of unauthorized trails or implementing additional closures.

Leavitt said the state believes the problem is urgent.

“We don’t want to wait years until the Forest Service does something concrete,” she said.

In his letter to EPA officials, Curry said the state intends to use “all tools available” to curb the impacts of unchecked off-roading, including state enforcement of water quality standards.