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High Country News
SOURCE: High Country News, March 1, 1999 Vol. 31 No. 4

Flagstaff Searches for its Forests' Future
by Michelle Nijhuis

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - It was June of 1996, and temperatures had already cracked the 100-degree mark all over the Southwest. The brief winter rains were a dim memory, the sky was cloudless and ponderosa pine f'orests near this northern Arizona town were choked with dry underbrush and spindly trees. Forest Service firefighters gear up for a white-knuckle fire season.
The political climate was heating up, too. Logging in the area was at a standstill, since a successful lawsuit over Mexican spottcd owl habitat had put the brakes on federal timber sales in the Southwest. The Forest Service and tile enviornmental community were at loggerheads, with both camps hurling insults at each other in the press and predicting doom for the region's forests. Less than a year earlier, angry demonstrators in northern New Mexico had torched an effigy of Sam Hitt, head of the environmental group Forest Guardians.

On June 20, the tension broke. A lightning strike sparked a fire near Flagstaff, and within hours the blaze was out of control. "From our front porch, it looked like Dante's Inferno. It was terrifying," says Bob Miller, an attorney who lives near the San Francisco Peaks on the northwestern outskirts of town. "We were in a total panic." The Hochderffer Hills fire swept through 16,400 acres of ponderosa pines before it was controlled nearly two weeks later, making it the largest fire in the history of the Coconino National Forest.

Although no lives or homes were lost, everyone knew it had been a close call. "Flagstaff has dodged the bullet many, many times," says Paul Surnmerfelt of the city's fire department. "It's no longer a question of if. It's a question of when."
With warnings like this in mind, a group of locals devised a plan to try to reduce the fire danger in the forests around town. Two years later, the plan still has a long way to go, and heated controversy continues over its approach. Still, the Grand Canyon Forests Partnership has accomplished the unexpected: Environmentalists are designing logging projects, scientists are defending their theories to laypeople, and the Forest Service is turning its planning process inside out. Somehow, the group has managed to blur the battle lines in the forests of the Southwest.

Restoring the forest

Peter FuIe, a forestry researcher at Northern Arizona University, grasps the trunk of a ponderosa pine. The tree is at least 40 feet tall, but so slender that Fule encircles it with one hand. "This tree is probably about 80-years old," he says. We're at the Fort Valley Experimental Station, a 4,600-acre Forest Service research forest. One hundred years ago, says FuIe, huge ponderosa pines and open grasslands covered the highlands of the Southwest. The forest floor was suillit, and early settlers drove their wagons between the massive pines.

Now, the forest here is so thick that it's difficult even to take a walk. After Anglo settlement, loggers took out the large trees, heavy grazing beat down the grasslands, and firefighting broke the natural burn cycle. Without wildfires to thin the forest, thickets of putty trees soon replaced the grasslands.
These small trees, like the one FuIe grips, rarely have the growing space to become fat, old-growth "yellowbelly" ponderosas, even after 80 years in the woods. FuIe, along with Wally Covington, Margaret Moore, and Doc Smith at the Northern Arizona University School of Forestry in Flagstaff, has been trying to figure out how to give tile larger pines some breathing room (HCN, 11/13/95).

Fortunately, says FuIe, "because of the arid environment, we still have on the landscape a pattern of previous conditions." It's a story told in stumps. Wood rots slowly in the dry climate of Arizona, so its relatively easy to see what the forest looked like in presettlement days; for every tree that stood 100 years ago, there's a stump. FuIe and his colleagues want to use these clues to recreate the landscape of grasslands and giant pines.

"The goal of restoration is to re-establish natural conditions," says Covington. "Natural" is a difficult term to pin down, he admits, but the presettlement West provides the clearest definition. "That's getting at the last, best information we have," he says. Covington is as much at home in the Southwest's 19th-century landscape as he is in today's dense ponderosa pine forest, since his academic work revolves around the history of these forests. He has been the most outspoken supporter of the university's research, and his warnings of catastrophic fires and calls for large-scale thinning have made him a controversial figure in the Southwest. While some environmentalists praise his foresight, others accuse him of muddling their message.

His work is now the basis for the Grand Canyon Forests Partnership plan for the Forest Service land around Flagstaff. It's his largest restoration project yet, and the one most likely to grab public attention. Suddenly, he's no longer shouting warnings from the ivory tower, He's helping to plan the future of the ponderosa pine forests, and he's not just answering to his peers anymore.

The partnership begins

It took the fires of 1996 to push Covington and his colleagues into the public eye. During the previous 10 years, opposition to Forest Service timber sales by environmental groups had caused a dramatic slowdown ir, public-lands logging. By the time the Hochderffer fire was threatening Flagstaff, the 16-month injunction on commercial logging was in place.

As the fire danger in the dense ponderosa forests become harder to ignore, some environmentalists wonder if their victory over the timber industry could backfire.

Facing the stumps
"I hate stumps," says Martos Hoffman, the executive director of the Southwest Forest Alliance, as we tour the Alliance's study plot near Williams, Ariz., where the group is trying to restore a chunk of national forest land.
"I've been an advocate against forestry my whole life, and the idea of restoration is a very new one," Hoffman says. "To buy off on the concept that some trees are going to get cut just kills me."
But in some ways, cutting trees is just what the Southwest Forest Alliance has accapted. Its 1996 Forests Forever, published independently of the partnership, would restore the ponderosa pine forests, reintroduce low-level fire into the ecosystem, and create restoration-based jobs in northern Arizona. Its support of any kind of forestry is startling, especially because the Tucson-based Southwest Center for Biological Diversity, a key player in the fight for the logging injunction, is one of the Alliance's 50 members and works closely with the group's staffers (HCN, 3/30/98).
In principle, the Alliance and the partnership are on the same page --- they both support some logging and some prescribed burning. But their strategies for restoring the forest are very different, and the conflict continues to test the partnership's commitment to collaborative decisionmaking.
Foresters using Covington's restoration plan have most of their decisions made for them. When timber markers find a presettlement stump, they preserve between one and-a-half and four of the trees closest to that stump. With a few exceptions, all other trees are cut.
Hoffman says this formula fells too many big trees and disrupts the natural "groupy" distribution of ponderosas. "Wally's model isn't flexible enough to protect the trees that you want left on the landscape," he says.
The Alliance wants all trees larger than 16-inches in diameter to be left standing, and it calls for more small trees in the forest than Covington's plan would allow. It would also deliberately preserve the uneven distribution of trees, aiming to provide more canopy habitat for birds and small mammals in the thinned forest.
It's a complicated way to do forestry. When the Alliance handed out their plan of action for the 37-acre experimental plot near Williams, says Hoffman, the timber markers were shocked. "It's six pages long!" one of them said.
"There is an art to it," says Hoffinan. "It requires some thinking about what's out there. We're talking about a change in mindset for the timber markers."
The Alliance's ideas have an unlikely supporter --- a Forest Service researcher. "I think (the Alliance plan) has some real merits, because they spend a lot more time working with existing conditions," says Carl Edminster of the Forest Service's Rocky Mountain Research Station in Flagstaff. "They're taking more of a conservative approach, and I applaud them for that."
Like the Alliance, Edminster wants to modify the present forest instead of using more drastic thinning to kick-start the restoration process, but his approach would be likely to take more small trees out of the woods.
He does add that the Alliance plan might not be the best one for the flammable forest bordering Flagstaff. "They're new at being at the business end of a paint gun, so I don't know that they're really doing enough as far as improving the vigor of the trees and reducing fire damage," he says.
Both camps worry that Covington's plan and its relatively mechanical rules could "run wild." Since the treatment can be easily copied, it could soon become a model for forest management in the Southwest.
"I don't want to see any of these efforts adopt a one-size-fits-all approach to these patterns," says Edminster.
Others question the extent of the forest fire danger in the Southwest, and see the relatively aggressive approach of the plan as a risky precedent. "This is a westwide initiative in the Forest Service," cautions Henry Carey, director of the Santa Fe, N.M.-based Forest Trust.
(continue this article)

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