Flood of Worries

Critics ask: Why not return Sabino Canyon to nature?

Once in awhile, nature offers us a chance to reconsider. One such opportunity arrived in 2003, when the Aspen Fire roared through the Santa Catalinas. In its charred aftermath, some suggested that the decimated mountaintop village of Summerhaven not be rebuilt.

Not only were firefighters risking their lives to protect tinderbox alpine hamlets, but there were also troubling questions over redevelopment in an already weary forest.

We all know how that debate ended.

Three years later, ash-filled floodwaters careened down the still-barren Catalinas and ripped through Sabino Canyon. Furious torrents blasted away trails, silted the creek and sent huge boulders plummeting into the roadway.

The flood wiped out the road where it meets Rattlesnake Creek, nearly two miles up the canyon. Restrooms near the end of the road took a similar blow.

Overall, it was a picture of devastation. But even as the Coronado National Forest leans toward restoring that road, others see a perfect opportunity to give the heavily used canyon a breather, and let it return to a more natural state.

Of course, that doesn't sit well with the forest officials, for whom the canyon is a major moneymaker. Visitor fees in the Santa Catalinas--including Sabino--bring in between $600,000 and $700,000 each year.

But at the very least, say critics, forest officials should conduct a formal environmental assessment of the road project.

Established under the National Environmental Policy Act, EAs are less rigorous than full-blown environmental impact statements. Still, they prompt more transparent decision-making. They would also require Coronado officials to at least consider alternatives to repaving. Those options could even include the radical notion of simply letting the canyon be.

So far, however, an EA isn't on the table. Santa Catalina District ranger Larry Raley calls the shots in Sabino, and he says he's leaning toward what's called a "categorical exclusion." Rather than opening the environmental-assessment process, he could simply consult with the Army Corps of Engineers and other experts before unilaterally giving the road project a green light.

Several factors could be driving Raley's stance. Among them are well-heeled road boosters such as Jim Click and Canyon Ranch founder Mel Zuckerman. They've pledged to raise some $500,000 for parking-lot repairs and other restoration. In April, Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl lassoed at least $1.2 million in taxpayer money to restore Sabino's theme-park accoutrements.

Meanwhile, the road project is already underway--at least on paper. "The plan has changed substantially," says Raley. These days, "It's to get the canyon and the tram open to the public, as far as possible, as soon as we can."

Meanwhile, opposition to rebuilding that road also remains substantial. Daniel Patterson is a southwest representative with Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. He says PEER was contacted by a Forest Service employee who was worried that Coronado officials were rushing the Sabino Canyon job under public pressure. "Our concern is that it's a major construction project," says Patterson, "but the Forest Service keeps saying it's just maintenance. That's a real stretch.

"We'd like to see them do environmental assessment," he says, "to take some public comment, actually get some alternatives and explore environmental harm that could be caused by rebuilding that road."

Patterson says a thoughtful discussion seemed imminent--before high-profile donors and grandstanding politicians sparked rebuilding fever. Forest officials "said they were going to look at all the options, and weren't sure what they were going to do. All that changed when Kyl swooped into town with a check that was only for road construction."

Raley denies that he's driven by such pressure, or that the community lacks a voice in Sabino's future.

"I think the public has been intimately involved in this since immediately following the flood," he says. "We have held a couple of public meetings, with well over 400 people at one."

Coronado officials have also received nearly 500 written comments about the canyon, he says, "and about 65 to 70 percent of those want the canyon reopened. About 25 to 30 percent are saying they would like various things. Some would like the tram to go to stop four, some to stop eight, and some would like to have the tram removed."

Another concern is for a population of endangered Gila chub. They were restored to the canyon in 2005 and now number in the thousands, says Jason Kline, fisheries specialist with the Arizona Game and Fish Department. "I surveyed them in March, and they were scattered throughout the stream again."

Kline says it's unclear whether the chub's endangered listing could impact rebuilding plans. "It just depends upon what (the Forest Service) decides it's going to do with that road, and they're now coordinating with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"But we'd like to see it left as it is, to give the chub a better chance in there," he says. "Some of us feel it would be special to just be able to hike in there."

Jerry Stefferud is a retired Forest Service biologist who helped improve Sabino's chub habitat in the late 1990s. He's not convinced that road rebuilding will "have much impact on the fisheries there, other than just having a lot of people around," he says. "It's all mostly bedrock."

Still, Stefferud also argues that a formal environmental assessment--with a healthy dose of public involvement--should be a no-brainer. The Forest Service "may just be trying to push the process along so they can get hold of some money," he says. "It's always foolish to do that, because then you can give in to a lot of influences."

"It sounds like (Coronado officials) just want to do a categorical exclusion," he says. "But if they are doing anything more than minor resurfacing work or cleanup, they should run it through the EA process."

In other words, they should at least consider a rare opportunity offered by Mother Nature. After all, says Stefferud, "the original decision to build that road was made 70 years ago. Maybe it's time to revisit it."

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