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Discussions over a new forest plan start on friendly footing--but can it last?

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It's barely 10 a.m., and Tucson is already moping toward 100 degrees. That hasn't escaped notice among a small clutch of travelers, now lolling alongside their luggage, in the cloistered courtyard of a downtown hotel. One of them, a pink-nosed elderly man, frowns at his watch and then at the blistering sky.

Just steps away, however, crisp--if cautious--optimism fills the air. Amid conference-room coffee cups, the fourth meeting toward updating a 20-year-old Coronado National Forest Management Plan is getting underway.

But that revision is requiring folks who mostly despise each other to agree--at least temporarily--to disagree. So far at this June 17 meeting, the gambit is holding.

Still, it's civility by design: The Coronado spent $25,000 for a private consultant, who then conceptualized these meeting formats. The agenda includes breaking into small groups, a habit beloved by retreat therapists and purveyors of self-esteem. But apparently, it's working, as some 100 hunters, conservationists, off-roaders, cowboys and everyday citizens are busily breaking policy bread.

There's plenty to hash out. The new plan, to be completed within a couple of years, will consider everything from cattle grazing and off-road-vehicle access to specially protected wild, scenic and research areas.

Jeanine Derby roams the room in a lime-green pantsuit, catching bits of discussion. As Coronado's supervisor, she wants a smooth process with broad input. "I'm trying to reach people who don't necessarily have a voice," she says, "those not from the groups I usually hear from."

Regardless, many in today's crowd appear quite seasoned at making their opinions known. Among them is Rebecca Antle, from the Arizona State Association of 4-Wheel Drive Clubs. So far, things are cordial. "But it's going to get pretty heated later on," she says with a slight, anticipatory grin.

In fact, Antle's off-roaders loom as the plan's stickiest wicket. But they're not alone. Nor is the Coronado; a plethora of competing interests are gearing up, as many of the nation's forests undergo plan updates required by the National Forest Management Act of 1976.

This marks the Coronado's first plan revision since 1986, and will govern the 1.7-million-acre preserve for years to come. It's a critical blueprint as the forest faces pressure from Arizona's explosive growth, and from the Bush administration's zeal to open public lands to oil, gas and timber companies.

That administration push was exemplified in May 2005. when President Bush abandoned protections--enacted during the Clinton presidency's final days--for 58.5 million acres of roadless forest areas across the nation. In Arizona, about 1 million acres of national forest are affected.

Under this change, governors were given 18 months to offer suggestions for areas that should receive continued protection. But the U.S. Forest Service can choose to disregard those recommendations.

Against this tense backdrop, activists of all stripes are elbowing to influence the Coronado plan. Derby acknowledges that squabbles will occur. "But we're looking for a common ground, for solutions," she says. "That's what the whole process is about."

Cattle grazing--or the reduction thereof--will certainly test that process, according to Chris Kassar with the Center for Biological Diversity. "We want to keep cattle out of riparian areas," she says, "and (reduce) the extent and intensity of livestock grazing, so that it's compatible with the resources."

Sonoita-area cattleman Mac Donaldson is a member of the Coronado Planning Partnership, a multi-hued body aiming for that elusive common ground. "We are willing to be cooperative," he says. "But we want to see our grazing rights and our investments protected."

An even bigger trial centers around ATVs, which may prove the pivotal issue as planning continues. The off-road machines--from monster trucks to motorcycles--were merely a blip on the recreational screen in 1986, when the current Coronado plan was completed. But today, they are common on public lands.

Nationally, ATV sales have grown from 350,000 in 1990 to 1.4 million in 2000. According to the Arizona State Parks department, nearly 17 percent of Pima County households include off-road vehicle users. And 6 percent of Arizonans headed to Pima County for their off-road fun in 2003. Throughout a given year, off-roaders directly or indirectly contribute more than $400 million to the local economy.

That puts a lot of pressure on land managers. But Derby says it won't drive planning decisions. Even now, "we do not allow cross-country travel on this forest with ATVs. It's restricted to designated roads and trails." She adds that "there probably won't be an expansion" of those existing areas.

Currently, the Coronado Web site lists three zones for "backcountry touring." One is in the Patagonia Mountains. Another big swath is in the Redington Pass area, including the Santa Catalina and Rincon Mountains. And a third is in the Santa Rita Mountains south of Tucson.

It's a pretty good chunk of territory. But Antle says reaching those areas--often only possible through private surrounding land--is tough. "We don't have enough access. You have so many motorized groups out there, not just the ATV and (off-highway vehicles), but also hunters and the rest. With the lack of access, they impact other (non-forest) areas a lot more."

Derby echoes that concern. "We do have very little legal (motorized) access to the national forest," she says. "And the problem is growing, because as land ownership changes, people are less likely to want the public driving through their private land to get to the national forest." As a result, "we are working hard to acquire points of access."

But that's hardly going to be an easy fight. And widespread unhappiness with ATVs is giving birth to a thick coalition of opponents, says David Hodges, policy director for the Sky Island Alliance. "Opposition to ATVs is broad-based," he says. "It includes ranchers, hunters--everybody that uses the forest."

Because of racket they generate, and damage to the land, off-roaders "have a disproportionate impact," he says. "They're only about 3 to 4 percent of forest users, but they impact everyone."

While Mac Donaldson considers most ATV riders to be responsible, "you've got that 15 percent who are out here to go as hard as they can, and as fast as they can," he says.

But to Donaldson, the problem is rooted in a disappearing rural ethic, as Arizona becomes more urban. "People come out here to ride around," he says, "and they aren't really looking (at their impact) in a long-term sense."

Back at the hotel, clipboards are already fat with suggestions for the Coronado plan. Politeness is afoot, and the long-term is on everyone's mind. But a long road lies between here and there. And before that plan is a wrap, more than just the weather is sure to be hot.

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