Commentary: Coconino Wilderness: Three is not the magic number
For the past several years, the Coconino National Forest has been hard at work revising their Forest Plan, which when completed will guide management on the entire forest over the next 15-20 years.
One central component to the Forest Planning process includes an evaluation of potential wilderness areas, which if eventually designated by Congress, would be managed for their natural values and ecological contributions, as well as for quiet recreation like hiking, hunting, and horseback riding.
Just a week ago, the Coconino released their Potential Wilderness Area Evaluation Report, the end result of a multi-stage review process for potential new wilderness areas on the forest. Through most of this process, the Coconino recognized the growing ecological and recreational need for new wilderness.
Since the 1984 Arizona Wilderness Act passed, Arizona has more than doubled its population and public lands recreation has skyrocketed. Given the demand for increasingly rare quiet recreational opportunities, the need to protect ecosystem services that support healthy communities, and the groundswell of local support for wilderness that emerged during the public process, the Coconino determined that 10 small or moderately sized areas were suitable as wilderness areas and thus qualify for wilderness designation.
Unfortunately, at the last point before the Draft Forest Plan was released, the Forest Supervisor made the arbitrary decision to cut his wilderness recommendations by 70 percent from that contained within the prior suitability analysis.
Only three small areas carry forward to draft Forest Plan—a decision that has ignored scientific calls to protect and restore ecological integrity and one that will deprive thousands of forest visitors every year of premier wilderness experiences.
Our remaining wilderness areas are critical components of protecting our environment; they are also important assets for the economic well-being of adjacent communities.
Activities such as bird watching, hiking, equestrian use, and hunting bring in billions of tourism dollars every year to Arizona.
When we think of iconic images and sought-after places for these activities on the Coconino, we are often thinking of a place within designated wilderness.
The west fork of Oak Creek in Red Rock Secret Mountain Wilderness, the San Francisco Peaks of the Kachina Peaks Wilderness, the watery wonderland of West Clear Creek in its namesake wilderness, or the incredible travertine pools of Fossil Springs Wilderness – all places that if not protected in years past, would be mere shadows of their glory today.
The Arizona Wilderness Coalition and the Grand Canyon Wildlands Council have spent years leading volunteer trips and inventory forays across the forest before submitting well-founded recommendations for additional wilderness areas on the Coconino.
One of our recommended areas, Hackberry Proposed Wilderness, is situated between Arizona’s only two Wild and Scenic Rivers—the Verde River and Fossil Creek. A designated wilderness within this ecological and recreational hot spot would connect vital wildlife migration corridors, safeguard sources of clean drinking water, and offer increasingly rare opportunities for quiet, human-powered recreation.
We recognize that wilderness may not be appropriate for all areas of public land given the extensive alteration of the much of the forest’s natural environment.
However, a 70 percent reduction of suitable wilderness areas in the Draft Forest Plan is not a balanced approach to managing the forest over the next two decades.
CNF staff has worked hard to gather considerable input from its staff and the public about potential new wilderness areas on the Forest.
But recommending only three areas for wilderness does not match the comprehensive information gathered during the review process, nor does it match the sentiments of the public who recognize the economic engine of protected wild lands in Arizona.
The Coconino National Forest needs to readdress its wilderness review process and take a hard look at the social, ecological, and economic desires of the people who visit, take pride in, and live with the Coconino National Forest.
Sam Frank is Central Arizona Director for the Arizona Wilderness Coalition in Prescott. Kim Crumbo is Director of Conservation for the Flagstaff-based Grand Canyon Wildlands Council and sits on the board of directors for the Arizona Wilderness Coalition.