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Future being mapped for Coconino National Forest

Officials with the Coconino National Forest are rewriting a 23-year-old blueprint for the forest and attempting to address some big problems, like climate change and water pollution.

The plans, set to be enacted in 2012, outline what uses will be allowed in the 1.8 million-acre forest for future decades. That’s prompted conservationists and plenty of others who use the forest to weigh in.

The plans shift from an era focusing on timber sales to a time when activities such as “geocaching” and “snowplay” are common terms.

The challenges include booming recreational use driven by population growth in the Phoenix metropolitan area, climate change, and how to respond to increased requests for groundwater, sledding areas and land swaps.

The public can comment this winter and in the coming year. But there are no guarantees that the Forest Service budgets will fund what’s ultimately recommended.

In considering how to make broad changes, the agency also outlined some of its more sweeping problems for the decades ahead.

Models from the United Nations’ panel on climate change predict the Southwest could be 5 to 8 degrees hotter by 2100 and that precipitation could decrease by 5 percent.

This could fan wildfires, move desert vegetation and animals to higher elevations, speed winter snowmelt, kill some plant species and reduce the amount of water available to plants and animals.

The Forest Service’s early ideas on how to combat this involve making native ecosystems healthier so they’re more resilient and able to withstand climate change.

“The conservation community’s stressing the importance of resilient forests, which means restoring natural fire, which means protecting and restoring old-growth (trees), which can take decades … and restoring native species diversity,” said Kim Crumbo, director of conservation at the Grand Canyon Wildlands Council. “This is a really critical plan because of the major concerns of climatic disruption.”

The number of visitors to the Coconino National Forest increased 72 percent from 2000 to 2005, by one measure, as urban Phoenix grew.

The agency expects more groundwater pumping, more requests for utility corridors and pressure to swap some of its land with nearby cities in the future. There’s also more demand for recreation.

Sites for sledding, for example, have not increased along with population growth. Nor has maintenance across the forest. For the future, the Forest Service proposes to replace old facilities, replace old outhouses, provide safe places to sled and cut its backlog of facilities left unmaintained by 20 percent.

The Coconino has one of the highest natural fire occurrences in the United States, and has many more trees than it had a little over a century ago.

From the late 1800s, the ponderosa pine areas of the Coconino became much denser than they had been, due to fire suppression, heavy livestock grazing and logging of large trees.

Grazing removed the fuels that carried frequent, small fires into the forest and fire suppression kept them out.

Now the forest is questioning how much to return fire to the ecosystem and how much the Forest Service can conduct prescribed burns while staying within state and federal air quality standards and not agitating neighbors.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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