GC VILLAGE — The National Park Service’s recently-unveiled plan for wildfire hazard reduction in Grand Canyon National Park must be much more acceptable to the public this time around. Park officials could count on one hand the number of people who showed up last week for an open house on that subject at the park’s community building.
Don Bertolette of the NPS Science Center goes over forest conditions from pre-settlement days compared to today.
Three years ago, there was a public outcry with a previous proposal that many thought was a disguise for logging within the boundaries of a national park. The most-recent proposal, which details four alternatives for two 80-acre experimental blocks on each rim, eliminates two controversial aspects of the 1999 plan.
First, the new plan limits cutting to smaller trees, defined as five inches or less in diameter. The previous plan allowed cutting of trees up to 16 inches in diameter. Second, all trees cut stay on site and would not be removed to a staging area.
"We’ve had only a few responses so far," said Don Bertolette of GCNP’s Science Center research branch. "The people who have voiced support think it should go forward. Others think it’s about right but want to know what role do lightning starts play in this scenario. There were others who said they were concerned about smoke because of global warming and those who wonder why trees to be thinned would not go to locals or tribes."
Environmental groups have been fairly silent on the whole subject, although concerns over damage to old-growth trees always comes up.
Bertolette said the evolution of the forest over the past century has created a more dangerous environment for the old-growth trees. In today’s world, wildland fires are less frequent but more intense, compared to the more-frequent, less-intense fires of pre-settlement times. As a result, Bertolette said the more serious fires seen today lead to a higher mortality rate of old-growth trees.
"Nothing goes back to pre-settlement in one swoop," Bertolette said about the wildfire hazard reduction techniques. "But it is incremental in returning to pre-settlement. As a result of treatment, we expect mortality to be divided by half in the areas treated."
The most dangerous element that could be eliminated with the plan, Bertolette said, would be taking out ladder fuels. Those are the smaller trees that catch fire and basically serve as a ladder for the blaze to climb up to bigger trees to crown.
The park’s preferred plan is designed to test four management prescriptions on two 80-acre experimental blocks. One block is located on the North Rim northwest of the developed area at Swamp Ridge. The South Rim site is located in the Grandview area east of the village and borders Kaibab National Forest.
Each 80-acre area will be subdivided into four 20-acre treatment units. Under the preferred plan, one of four treatments would be randomly assigned to each unit.
Those treatments include:
o Intermediate thinning and burning treatment. Under this treatment, most trees less than five inches in diameter at breast height would be cut. The thinning would be followed by prescribed fire treatments.
o Minimal thinning and burning treatment. Under this treatment, thinning would be targeted around individual trees that are generally 120 years or older. Trees with a diameter of five inches or less at breast height, within a predetermined distance around the older trees, would be cut. The thinning would be followed by prescribed fire treatments.
o Burn-only treatment. Under this treatment, no trees would be cut except when required to mitigate specific hazards to safely burn. The units would be treated with prescribed fire.
o Control. Under this treatment, no trees would be thinned, and fire would continue to be excluded from the unit.
If the proposal moves forward without any setbacks, Bertolette said thinning could happen as soon as this summer, weather permitting. The dry conditions in the forest could lead to restrictions over the summer months.
And even if tree thinning did occur in the experimental blocks in the near future, prescribed fire would likely not occur until many months later because of the conditions. After the thinning takes place and trees are cut up, a second stage of prescribed fire would follow anywhere from two to 14 months later.
Bertolette said the worst-case scenario would be if it takes "some time" for a wildfire reduction plan to be initiated.
For project details, go online to: www.nps.gov/grca/forest; or write for a copy to: Superintendent, Grand Canyon National Park, P.O. Box 129, Grand Canyon, AZ 86023 (mark to attention of Sara White, compliance officer).
Comments should be submitted to White at the above address by June 5. For questions, call Robert Winfree, senior scientist, at 928-226-0159.