Without a map, it's easy to lose yourself in the Coronado National Forest. Sprawling across southeastern Arizona and into New Mexico, this sublime domain encompasses nearly 2 million acres of mountains, arroyos and plains.
Then again, any map is only as good as its ability to tell you where you are, and where you need to be.
Some say that the map that will determine the Coronado's future fails on both counts.
When finished, this ongoing update of the forest's management plan—an overhaul required by the National Forest Management Act of 1976—will guide everything from cattle-grazing and off-road-vehicle access to specially protected wild, scenic and research areas. But so far, critics say, the plan has spawned more confusion than clear direction, and ultimately amounts to little more than a wish list.
"It's just fluff," says David Hodges, of the Coronado Planning Partnership, a loose-knit group that includes environmentalists, ranchers and scientists. "It has a lot of lofty goals that the agency will never meet."
According to Hodges, those "lofty goals" include restoring rangeland and limiting the "density of existing and new road construction to one mile of road or less per square mile." The plan also talks of extensive re-vegetation, of stabilizing stream banks and providing special management attention to "indicator" species, ranging from the Mount Graham red squirrel and Merriam's turkey to the Arizona ridge-nosed rattlesnake.
It all sounds great on paper, says Hodges. "But the plan ignores the lack of funding, and their own history of what they've been able to do with the resources they have. If you put something in there that can't happen, it's worthless."
Jennifer Ruyle is chief architect of Coronado's plan. Funding is a perennial problem, she says. "One thing that a forest plan cannot do is generate resources. That's just a fact of life. No matter what we put in the plan, it won't increase our budget."
But she does not agree that the forest plan is merely a grab bag of good intentions. "We're putting things in there that we think we will be able to achieve. The way we'll increase our ability to manage is by being more efficient, being more knowledgeable—and having the information there that will really drive our management in the right direction."
That direction was supposed to be set—or at least swayed—by a series of high-profile public meetings, which a consultant was paid $25,000 to organize. Hodges says he sees very little of that input in the current draft plan.
That doesn't mean those public comments won't eventually find their way into the document, says outgoing Coronado supervisor Jeanine Derby. She points out that the current plan is merely one alternative, to be considered as part of a formal review called an environmental impact statement: "It's a draft that is the best compilation our team could come up with from the series of collaborative meetings that took place."
Likewise, this current draft only addresses things that need updating from the earlier plan, which dates back to 1986. "The rest will stay as it is," Derby says.
Confusing? You bet. It also makes this revision something of a moving target for environmentalists such as Hodges, who point out that huge topics such as climate change—emphasized at a national level by U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who oversees the Forest Service—are ignored by the draft plan. But again, says Derby, a section of the EIS will address that issue.
Hodges and other conservationists are finding this piecemeal approach frustrating. "The problem with that strategy," he writes in a subsequent e-mail, "is that the public doesn't know what is being dropped from the existing plan, only what is being added—unless they are keeping everything in the existing plan and simply adding to it.
"I can't believe this is the case," he continues, "as that would make the (environmental impact statement) process much more daunting, as they would have to assess all of the old stuff and all the new stuff. This is puzzling."
The Coronado's overly cautious approach is due to a series of political and court decisions that largely gutted new, less-stringent planning rules put in place in 2005 under the Bush administration. That "streamlined" approach was thrown out by a federal district judge who ruled that, among other things, it didn't allow for public comment on specific parts of forest plans.
As a result, forests such as the Coronado are relying on earlier guidelines, requiring the full-blown environmental impact statement. "When we started this process, we were under that different set of regulations which didn't require an EIS," says Derby. "Then, due to actions by the court that threw us back to earlier regulations, we're now in the EIS process."
Regardless, the Coronado is thoroughly committed to hashing out each and every issue, says planner Ruyle. And that means making sure that folks like Hodges have a place at the table as the plan is pieced together. "Sometimes, it's awkward and messy to try to collaborate on every step," she says. "But I think it was well worth it."
Ruyle says that all those issues raised at public meetings—from ATV accessibility and fire reduction to more wilderness areas—have not gone by the wayside. "Where you're going to see that fleshed out is in the draft environmental impact statement," she says. "That's the document that talks about existing conditions, about issues and about how the plan will address those issues."
Those "condition statements" are the heart of the plan, says Ruyle. As an example, she points to ongoing consultations with the University of Arizona's venerated tree-ring lab regarding climate change.
What does the lab have to say about how the Coronado will fare? "The answer, really, is the 'three Rs,'" she says. "Resilience, restoration and response."
Here's how those "three Rs" will look in the EIS: Resilient ecosystems will be described, and then management will be geared toward keeping them that way.
Of course, that's the type of pie-in-the-sky assumption that raises eyebrows among conservationists.
For skeptics like Hodges, creating a feel-good plan is worse than no plan at all. "The (Coronado) just wants to be done with it and move on," he says. "But it's pointless to be done with something if it's not very good and not going to be useful. And history tells us we're going to have to live with it for the next 25 years."