In the Southwest corner of Arizona is a sprawling forested landscape that is one of the unique natural wonders of the United States. The Coronado National Forest covers over 1.7 million acres and comprises some of the most diverse ecological habitats in the entire country. The mountains of the Coronado National Forest are known as “sky islands” because of the extreme changes between the environments at different elevations. The sky islands in this region are among the most studied on earth, and they are a popular location for recreationists and scientists alike. Managing this vast and unique region is a substantial responsibility of the US Forest Service, and from Romtec’s perspective, they are doing an exceptional job.
Managing a national forest involves many disparate responsibilities that require different types of organization and talent. Aspects of forest management require science, business, politics, logistics, engineering, research, and other valuable skills. Balancing all of these needs within a unified government agency is no small task, but the ranger districts of the Coronado National Forest provide the talent, resources, and facilities needed to protect and share this special region of our country.
Management Plan Development
Central to the mission of the National Forest Service in the Coronado National Forest is to offer “high quality visitor opportunities and services within the capabilities of these ecosystems,” according to its website. The biggest draw of any national forest is the outdoor recreation opportunities, but providing access while managing the environmental impact is a careful balancing act. The Forest Service is currently revising the Coronado National Forest Plan that has been in place since 1986.
The updated plan will govern essentially the same features as the existing plan but with an increased sensitivity to the current priorities of the National Forest and surrounding communities. These priorities focus on issues such as cultural resources, ecological protection, wildlife & fish, wilderness, law enforcement, minerals, open ranges, recreation & visual quality, and others. The existing plan created a history of successes and failures that will be used to govern the creation of the new plan. The Forest Service says, “The proposed plan is based on best available science and years of collaboration with the public, Tribes, other federal agencies, and state and local governments.” Collaboration and experience are two ways that the Forest Service has been so successful managing the Coronado National Forest.
Among the many successes of the existing Forest Service plan is the recreational facilities and visual quality offered at the Coronado National Forest. Romtec is fortunate to have been a part of over two-dozen projects in the past decade and can safely say that the Forest Service in this region places value on high-quality facilities. Although Romtec is one of the leading design-build firms for public facilities, most of the credit for the success of these projects goes to the Forest Service staff that clearly directed the building designs to meet its standards. Organizations that have a clear goal and vision and that have individuals who are active participants in the process always get superior results for their projects. This is true for getting Romtec buildings, but the Forest Service at the Coronado National Forest has developed many other successful facilities as well.
The National Forest Service “Rooms with a View” program in Arizona offers historic cabin rentals throughout the State’s national forests. These facilities are another popular success story. Recently the Forest Service renovated three cabins to be added to this program in the Douglas and Catalina Ranger Districts. These buildings used to be civilian conservation corps housing, a ranch bunk house, and a ranger residence in the early parts of the 20th century. Today, they are historic cabins for park visitors to experience the culture and nature of the region.
The Forest Service also operates and maintains several large cabin facilities. The Half-Moon Ranch and the Shaw House in the Cochise Stronghold offer rooms for up to 10 people and lodgings for 6 horses. They offer central access to the sky islands of the Dragoon Mountains for hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, and rock climbing. The large Kentucky Camp is well over 100-years-old and used to be the headquarters for a mining outfit in the area. Visitors can reserve the central headquarters for daytime use and sleeping accommodations in one of two nearby cabins. This facility is located in the Santa Rita Mountains on the famous Arizona Trail.
These examples are just a taste of the facilities available to visitors of the Coronado National Forest. The Forest Service manages many additional structures, and Romtec has seen that the Forest Service places a high value on incorporating “green” building practices with its new facilities. Solar power is a particularly appealing option in this region because of the ample amounts of sunlight available year-round. Adding environmentally friendly designs to stylish regional buildings are just a couple of examples of how the Coronado Nation Forest offers such fantastic facilities. This is likely an area of emphasis that will continue to expand under the new management plan.
Protection of Resources
Another central mission of the Forest Service in the Coronado National Forest is to “sustain the unique biodiversity of the sky island ecosystems.” There are many facets to succeeding in this mission, and the developing Coronado National Forest Plan is how the Forest Service is going to manage the future of these natural resources. The Forest Service has played an integral role in sustaining the ecosystems of the Coronado National Forest through its existing plan, but new experiences and changing dynamics are two areas that will be addressed by the new plan.
A recent wildfire called the “Horseshoe 2 Fire” burned nearly 225,000 acres of the Chiricahua Mountains in 2011. This is currently the fourth largest forest fire in the history of Arizona. The root cause for the intensity of the fire was deemed to be an excess of underbrush and a lack of recent fire history. This recent example demonstrates the need for improving the planning to increase fire protection.
Historically, the Forest Service practiced what it called “Fire Control.” This approach sought to prevent forest fires from ever happening. The current management plan calls for “Fire Management.” This approach treats forest fires as an expected event that should be managed through practices like brush removal and even controlled burns. The new Coronado National Forest Plan will likely include this same kind of language and instruction for the prevention of high intensity fires. Although the focus is the same, the new plan will take into account examples like the Horseshoe 2 Fire to resolve the issues with fire management that failed to prevent that blaze.
Another issue which has become strained in recent years under the existing plan is the competition for water resources for municipalities, private mining applications, and National Forest ecosystems. The Forest Service has a unique responsibility to ensure that the watersheds in the Coronado National Forest are functioning appropriately from an ecological standpoint. This responsibility gives the forest service the need to conduct environmental impact studies when towns and private industry apply for watershed status.
At some locations it is possible that a town, mining company, cattle ranch, and natural ecosystem will all compete for limited water resources. The biological rarity of the Coronado National Forest and its sky islands makes it a highly interesting natural region for scientific study and exploration. This level of global attention to the area provides an added level of concern over ensuring that water resources are managed responsibly. The development of the new plan will continue to ensure the health of the Forest’s ecosystems as competition for water increases.
These focuses are substantial areas for the management of the forest, but the Forest Service also handles other important issues such as invasive species, grazing lands, roads, and more. All of these issues are key to the sustained success of the Coronado National Forest. Each of these areas also requires personnel with appropriate talents that are specialized to each need. Getting the planning right for each project year after year is difficult, but at this national forest, there has been continued success with the forest management. Success in this type of management should be appreciated by everyone who has enjoyed this region, and it is with that appreciation that more success is possible.
Working with Passion
When Romtec has had the privilege to work with the Forest Service personnel at the Coronado National Forest, the passion of its employees has always been apparent. One aspect of this passion has to do with the uniqueness of ecosystems in the forest. Rarity has a way of creating devotion. Another aspect, however, is the large amount of support provided to the Forest Service from the region.
Potentially the most significant help is the local and regional support brought by volunteer groups and similar organizations. In some cases, the Forest Service is actually considering transferring the management of certain locations to these private interests. This is another aspect of its new plan. Arrangements between the Forest Service and private volunteer groups, indeed, already exist. At the Kentucky Camp discussed above, the entire facility is managed by a group called “Friends of Kentucky Camp.”
This group has a passion for the Old West and enjoys sharing the living history of its origins with visitors to the Kentucky Camp. The volunteers operate and maintain the facility and are currently in the process of renovating the large headquarters building on the site to expand its service capabilities. This group plays an important role for helping the Forest Service but the Friends of Kentucky Camp is just one chapter of a larger organization, the Coronado National Forest Heritage Society.
The second chapter is the “Friends of Brown Canyon Ranch.” This is yet another facility that is over a century old and typifies the Old West history of the region. Together these chapters of the Coronado National Forest Heritage Society work to assist the Forest Service in its efforts to preserve and advance the surplus of cultural resources in the Coronado National Forest. Managing facilities is just one way that the Forest Service is benefitted by the passion of volunteers.
Another organization called the “Sky Island Alliance” focuses its efforts more toward serving the native species and habitat of the National Forest’s sky islands (an aerial view of the Santa Teresa sky island is shown above). This organization works with a variety of people such as scientists, politicians, and volunteers to serve the sky islands in Arizona, New Mexico, and Northern Mexico. A separate arm of the organization is specifically focused on helping the Forest Service develop its new management plan.
In addition to these and other organizations, the Forest Service has the support of other specialized groups such as recreationists, scientific communities, native Tribal groups, and historians. This constant support spread across the multitude of management responsibilities of the Forest Service creates an atmosphere of synergy as well as culpability. These two factors are a part of why the Forest Service at the Coronado National Forest operate with such clear passion and organization.
Organizations with these qualities are not always easy to find. Romtec works with many agencies, government and private, and recognizes the special nature of the work being done by the Forest Service at the Coronado National Forest. The new management plan will direct the development of the region for many years to come, and with the history of talent and passion displayed by the Forest Service, it is obvious that the Coronado National Forest will be an exceptional natural resource for anyone who wants to explore it.