Leading local restoration <br>scientists warn about future <br>

This 12-acre parcel located off Country Club Drive is the site of a test area for the Forest Service. Some of the area was thinned heavily, which is recommended by the Forest Service. Another section was lightly thinned while a small section was left untouched..

“My major frustration comes from seeing this coming now for 30 years. We are still not moving on a pace and scale that is necessary to resolve these problems right now. I think we will be lucky to have a half or maybe a third of the ponderosa pine types saved from devastating crown fires over the next 30 years,” said Wally Covington, director of the Ecological Restoration Institute.

Since Covington began as a forest ecologist at Northern Arizona University in 1975, he has captured a supportive audience with prominent politicians like Bruce Babbitt, John McCain, Jon Kyle and Rick Renzi.

Legislation authored by Congressman Renzi (AZ-1) – H.R. 2696; “The Southwest Forest Health and Wildfire Prevention Act,” recently passed through both houses to help local forest management agencies and local communities design more effective restoration treatments to reduce the risk of catastrophic fire.

The bill directs the Forest Service to establish the Ecological Restoration Institute beyond Northern Arizona University and into two other universities; New Mexico Highlands University (Las Vegas, N.M.) and Ft. Lewis College (Durango, Colo.). Extending restoration science into other communities will help in training and educating people to understand and act upon the critical situation in southwestern forests.

“We (ERI at NAU) get on average of about $2.5 million per year… from a variety of sources from grants, contracts and direct appropriations clustered by Sen. Kyle, Sen. Renzi and others,” Covington said.

After the Cerro Grande Fire of 2000 in Los Alamos, N.M., ERI received $8.9 million and passed most of that money on to other groups like the Greater Flagstaff Forest Partnership, local fire departments, the Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management.

These organizations get money through ERI for cooperating on projects for reducing forest fuels to protect property and structures, and especially in efforts to restore vast forestlands in more remote areas.

Federal funding for forest thinning and restoration increased from $117 million in 2000 to $417 million during this year’s budget proposal. This money can be allocated to agencies, communities or organizations with the greatest need for funding in restoration work.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” Covington said.

Currently there are at least 39 million acres of land in the National Forest System in the interior west at high risk for wildfire. Arizona is the most critical area with 59 percent of forested lands containing an upwards to 300-500 trees per acre at a diameter of 9 to 12 inches.

Covington said he is frustrated because people classically tend to be shortsighted; whereby, in the case of restoration, he said that they mostly look at protecting private property with urban interface boundaries and are less concerned with the backcountry ecosystems. Covington said future generations need these watersheds, healthy forests and animal habitats and that it is in our best interest to protect it as well.

“It would be a terrible thing for my house to burn down, but State Farm and I could rebuild the house in a few years. When you lose the old-growth trees, the watershed or the Mexican spotted owl habitat – those take hundreds or thousands of years to recover,” Covington said.

One of the biggest problems with all these small diameter trees is the timber industry has little use for them with our current construction standards; however, alternatives do exist for practical use of this type of wood.

Currently northern Arizona has two possibilities for using small diameter trees. In Cameron, Indigenous Community Enterprises operates the Navajo Hogan Project. Here, the small diameter trees are shaved into uniform logs and composed into the octagon walls of hogans.

The other timber option is the modern lumber mill waiting to be built in Bellemont, when Savanna Pacific Lumber raises the money to build the facility. At this operation, small sections of cut wood can be fused with other sections to make larger boards for standard construction purposes.

Covington said that our motives for restoration cutting and the question of – to what amount of trees do we cut – is a sociopolitical issue that people need to recognize. Scientists have their estimates of what needs to be done, but they also want to consider other interests like sustaining a timber industry and maintaining tourism.

ERI and forest ecologists have been working for years to determine what was the natural level of forest evolutionary standards before American settlement introduced cattle grazing, fire suppression and the industrialization-scale logging of the early 1900s. All of these factors coupled with one extremely wet and fertile year over 80 years ago exponentially increased the number of ponderosa in Arizona.

Naturally, northern Arizona was mostly grass and wildflowers with sparse old-growth trees on an average of about 10 per acre. Fires would burn through one area on average of every 2-5 years – caused naturally by lightning or intentionally set by Native Americans. These fires would remain on the ground, killing excess tree saplings and adding nutrients to the soil for better grass health. These grasslands would feed herds of animals, as well as provide them with better habitat.

“If you figured that the fires occurred on a 2-5 year interval, just here in the Coconino National Forest — that would suggest you would have from a third or fifth to half of the forest burning every year, so it would be hundreds of thousands of acres burning each year.

Covington said the real story is that the flame heights on these ancient fire patterns would be two or three feet high and not the 300 foot flames we are seeing from today’s crown fires caused by the overly dense forests.

Returning forestlands to this pre-settlement state will increase water storage, improve vegetation, increase wildlife and reduce the threat to communities living in or around the forests.

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