The ponderosa pine forest, across northern and central Arizona, looks green and healthy, but scientists say just the opposite is true. And they’ve joined with local government officials, environmentalists and industry to restore the forest’s health.
“I overheard on a VHF radio, one of my neighbors say, ‘yeah, that damned Ed Smith, that’s his fault that that Hochderffer fire went up.’ Because I was stopping the Forest Service single-handedly. He gave me way too much credit.”
Ed Smith, an ecologist with The Nature Conservancy, recalls this radio transmission back in the mid-1990s. Then, he lived in his family’s cabin in the woods of northern Arizona, a time when large fires started to occur on the forests. Concerned about the fires, and the effects of logging, Smith became part of a grassroots movement that grew into the Greater Flagstaff Forest Partnership.
“I started out as an activist,” Smith recalls. “There were a number of us who got together. The idea was that if we could talk through some of these issues, we could translate that controversy into collaboration and move forward rather than stall out.”
Then in 2002, the Rodeo-Chediski fire exploded across the Mogollon Rim. It charred close to half a million acres and destroyed 400 buildings. The flames came close to the towns of Heber and Show Low in eastern Arizona. Rodeo-Chediski was a wakeup call. Protecting communities from fire was essential, but not enough.
Steve Gatewood, with the Greater Flagstaff Forest Partnership, understood that something more ambitious had to be done across a much larger piece of the landscape. In his view, “It had to happen. We always saw that it would be larger. We didn’t know what form it would take. Everybody now recognizes you can protect communities while you restore forests. They’re one and the same.”
In 2009, 4FRI was born--the largest restoration project in the country. The Forest Service signed on; after all, the future of the Coconino, Kaibab, Tonto, and Apache Sitgreaves forests was at stake. The Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University added its scientific perspective. Wildlife biologists, loggers, and local government officials took seats at the table. The stakeholders met, listened, talked, and their ideas began to evolve.
The Forest Service may have been experiencing the biggest transformation of all. For years, the agency had concentrated on turning trees into boards. But its focus changed in the 1990s as environmental lawsuits brought timber sales to a halt.
4FRI team leader Henry Provencio gives the agency’s historical perspective. “We kind of slid through the eighties and struggled into the nineties, I will really say we lost our way; so we became an agency of doers—you know, we’re going out, we’re putting out the fires, we’re producing that timber…to an agency where we became planners. And I think it really hit us hard.”
Pat Jackson, chief of staff for the Forest Service’s Southwest region in Albuquerque, recognizes the big move away from commercial logging: “The agency has begun a paradigm shift from a production orientation of forest products to a restoration perspective.”
The initial goal of 4FRI is to restore a million acres of the Coconino and Kaibab forests to a more natural condition. To do that, some 30,000 to 50,000 acres a year will be “treated” by mechanically thinning and then reintroducing fire. The plan is to create a mosaic. Leave old-growth pines. Revive oaks, aspens, and shrubs. Make some larger grassy meadows. Instead of homogenous suburbs of same-sized, same-aged trees, there’ll be a mix of young, middle, and old-aged trees.
Restoration will also provide corridors for wildlife, and Henry Provencio sees 4FRI’s landscape-scale approach as a great possibility for that. “You really need to look at that landscape,” he says. “Are we providing that connectivity for these critters. The beauty of 4FRI coming into this, and it was kind of a ‘duh’ moment, it was like, wow, this really makes sense…in terms of critters it’s a beautiful thing.”
And fire--a key process in the ponderosa pine forest--will resume its natural role. If 4FRI succeeds, the forest will be resilient, able to bounce back after most natural disturbances. But inevitably, the devil’s in the details. 4FRI participants have had to reconcile strongly held philosophies. The big question is whether collaboration can work in making such important land policy decisions.
This series on 4FRI is funded in part by the Grand Canyon Trust.