Tonto National Forest officials are on heightened environmental watch as high season for use of the forest's desert region arrives.
Cooler autumn weather lures visitors to the forest lands near the East Valley. Those bringing their firearms and off-road vehicles will be under particular scrutiny by rangers.
Tonto officials will evaluate how stringently those users keep to the areas designated for their forms of recreation.
Too much straying by shooters or off-roaders could prompt the U.S. Forest Service to consider putting even tighter reins on those activities in the Tonto, one of the area's busiest national forests.
“I want to stress that it's a minority of those users who cause the problem,” said Art Wirtz, chief ranger for the Tonto's Mesa district. Still, that minority does more than enough damage to threaten the long-term ecological health of sizable stretches of sensitive land, he said.
Two years ago this month, the Forest Service indefinitely closed about 80,000 acres across the forest's Mesa and Cave Creek districts to target shooting.
The area was closed for two reasons, Wirtz said. One is the march of development to the edges of the East Valley. Urban growth is erasing the buffer between populated areas and the forest, putting neighborhoods closer to the once-remote areas where off-roaders and shooters congregate.
Second, as more Valley residents bring the forest more visitors, it's increasing the ranks of those who disregard the law and are careless in their treatment of the wilderness.
In his jurisdiction, chief Cave Creek district ranger Delvin Lopez doesn't find many road signs without bullet holes shot in them, even in areas where the shooting ban is in effect.
In places where shooting is permitted, the ground is littered with shotgun shells and bullet casings and discarded propane tanks and household appliances used for target practice.
From the ranger station, Lopez can hear the loud whir of dirt bikes and all-terrain vehicles in an area where homes are being built ever closer to the forest's border.
Nearby, soil in desert washes and on steep, vegetated hills is eroding because off-road motor vehicle use is stripping away the ground's hard surface layer.
Signs warning drivers the area is off-limits to them “aren't stopping them at all,’’ Lopez said.
He figures these areas will be among those targeted by an off-road vehicle management plan the Forest Service is developing for five Arizona national forests.
Officials meeting earlier this year said it could mean closure of half the areas in the Tonto where off-roaders ride.
Lopez said he and his rangers can expect such moves to upset some who have been accustomed to using the forest as wide-open playground.
Other users are already seeing the benefits of tighter recreation management, Wirtz said.
“We're getting a lot more hikers, mountain bikers and equestrians in the areas we've closed to shooting,’’ he said. “We are hearing positive things from those folks who say they had avoided those areas before because of the shooting.’’
While the Forest Service will close unauthorized trails where terrain is threatened, it may in turn increase the number of designated off-road trails in other areas.
“In the end, we may be adding more authorized trails than they have to ride on now,” Wirtz said.