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Desired Conditions 

Environmentalists and Forest Service officials find themselves largely agreeing about the Coronado's future

The air is cool, and the hiking is easy these days here in the Madrean Archipelago--but I wouldn't know. I've been inside for weeks, reading reports about the state of the Coronado National Forest.

Imagine living in Tucson without the surrounding 1.7 million acres of oak forests, coniferous highlands, sweeping grasslands, misty riparian canyons and woody Sonoran Desert landscapes that constitute the Coronado. You could still get good Mexican food, but what else would you do?

For more than three years now, Coronado National Forest officials have been working on a new forest plan, a document that is supposed to guide the forest for the next 20 years. The last time the forest's guiding plan was updated was in the 1980s, and things have changed since then.

For example, the existing forest plan is primarily concerned with the extractive industry's use of the forest and how best to facilitate that use. In contrast, a preliminary document relating to the new plan, released in November, admits that now there is a "general passion in the surrounding communities for preserving natural landscapes of the Coronado National Forest."

Does this mean there's hope that the new plan--which may be released in draft form as soon as the summer of 2009--is going to be an enlightened document rather than a free pass for the mining, ranching and off-roading industries? It certainly appears that way.

At a recent public meeting, the Coronado's planning team released a series of documents called "desired conditions." These are meant to be a kind of preamble to the plan itself, describing the best-case scenarios for everything from the health of the forest's grasslands and riparian areas to what kind of recreation is allowed in certain parts of the forest. Along with these documents, the planners released their preliminary structure for dividing the forest, using, for the first time, terms like "wild backcountry" and "roaded backcountry" to define what kind of recreation will be allowed where. According to the preliminary documents, ATV recreation--the single most offensive action on the forest to many conservationists--will be disallowed on all but a small portion of the Coronado under the new plan.

Similarly, the "desired conditions" documents reflect a more scientific approach to land management. Grasslands and riparian areas need to be protected from overgrazing and invasive species; illegal roads should be closed; natural fires must be allowed to burn where appropriate; and native species and endangered species are considered a priority.

"The desired conditions statements paint the picture of how it should be," said Jennifer Ruyle, the Coronado's point-person on forest-planning. "We are pretty close on a lot of them, except for the vegetation condition--we are trending away from desired conditions when it comes to invasive species, and wildlife is a challenge, especially with the aquatic species."

Concurrently, the Coronado Planning Partnership--an affiliation of conservation groups following the forest-plan process closely--released its own, 268-page report last month.

While this report goes further than the Forest Service does when it comes to planning new wilderness areas, requesting new study areas and generally taking a science- and wildlife-centric view, the most striking thing is how close the two entities are in general.

"On the desired conditions, we are very close," said David Hodges, policy director for the Sky Island Alliance and spokesman for the Coronado Planning Partnership. "We want the same thing at the end of the day; it's just, how do we get there? We have different ideas about that. We are looking for something big and bold. This is going to dictate the next 20 years."

This summation, from the planning partnership's report, reflects the guiding theory about what the new forest plan should do, it doesn't appear that any of the Forest Service planners would disagree: "Past land management priorities in this region have not reflected the amazing diversity, focusing instead on maximum utilization of resources. The new Coronado Forest Plan can shift management focus and values toward sustaining healthy ecological systems and the species that inhabit them."

That seems simple enough. But there's a big catch: The Coronado needs a budget to match the mission. That's not likely to happen, however.

The Forest Service budget has been slashed over the last several years, just as the costs for fighting wildfires have soared; the fiscal year 2009 budget floated by the Bush administration was 8 percent lower than 2008's, and 5 percent lower than 2007's.

"We anticipate flat budgets for the time being," Ruyle said. What the plan will do is help Coronado officials spend the little money they do have more efficiently, she added.

But these challenging economic times could also be a boon for the nation's forests if conservationists get their way. In fact, there are several proposals making the rounds among lawmakers right now in anticipation of some kind of large public-works stimulus package. One plan calls for about $500 million over two years to set up a program to close unneeded and illegal roads and restore "needed natural infrastructure" on the national forests. Such a plan, according to conservation groups, would provide desperately needed employment for rural residents while at the same time restoring some long-suffering ecosystems.

Hodges said that thousands of Americans, especially in the West, could be put to work on thinning projects that would make drought-ravaged forests less susceptible to catastrophic wildfires.

"The values are shifting," he said. "People are getting used to certain uses on the forest, and it's hard to turn that around."

However, all this cooperation and like-mindedness--a reality that certainly didn't exist in the 1980s--among government planners and conservationists may be all for naught, at least in the near term.

Ongoing litigation over the rules used for constructing a forest plan may end up derailing the whole process, sending everybody, if not back to the drawing board, back a few steps.

Many environmentalists have always wanted forest planners to use rules set down during the Clinton administration, which they see as more scientifically rigorous. Ruyle and her team have been using planning rules set down during the Bush administration. Courts are still reviewing the matter, and many believe that President Obama may throw out the Bush rules and put the former rules back. How much of delay that would cause remains to be seen, but Hodges said he's skeptical that a draft of the plan will be released by next summer.

"I would rather have the best plan possible, even it means waiting a few more years," he said.

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