Flagstaff searches for its forests' future

  • Flagstaff Urban Interface

    Map by Diane Sylvain
  • An old-growth ponderosa stump

    Norm Wallen photo
  • The 1996 fire advances toward Flagstaff

    Bill Cordasco photo
  • A modern-day ponderosa forest, with spindly trees crowded together

    Michelle Nijhuis
  • Trees larger than 16" in diameter would be left alone

    Jake Bacon/Arizona Daily Sun
  • Old-growth ponderosa in Grand Canyon National Park

    Martos Hoffman photo

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 forests near this northern Arizona town were choked with dry underbrush and spindly trees. Forest Service firefighters geared 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 spotted owl habitat had put the brakes on federal timber sales in the Southwest. The Forest Service and the environmental 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 Summerfelt 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 Fulé, 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 Fulé 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 Fulé, huge ponderosa pines and open grasslands covered the highlands of the Southwest. The forest floor was sunlit, 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 puny trees soon replaced the grasslands. These small trees, like the one Fulé grips, rarely have the growing space to become fat, old-growth "yellowbelly" ponderosas, even after 80 years in the woods.

Fulé, 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 the larger pines some breathing room (HCN, 11/13/95). Fortunately, says Fulé, "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 it's relatively easy to see what the forest looked like in presettlement days; for every tree that stood 100 years ago, there's a stump. Fulé 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 in 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 became harder to ignore, some environmentalists wondered if their victory over the timber industry could backfire. A fire like the Hochderffer might someday start on the wrong side of Flagstaff, and the town would be standing directly in its way. Such a disaster could turn public opinion around and bring large-scale logging roaring back to life.

Was there a way out? Brad Ack, projects director for the Flagstaff-based Grand Canyon Trust, turned to the university researchers. "What we needed was a reverse timber sale, an anti-timber sale," he says. Their research convinced him that a new sort of timber sale could help restore the forest.

With Covington's work in mind, Ack approached Fred Trevey, then the supervisor of the Coconino National Forest. "I said, "Fred, why don't we try this approach?" "''''he remembers.

The Trust wanted to create a nonprofit foundation, the Grand Canyon Forests Foundation, that would work with the agency and the public to develop a restoration-based management plan for the federal forest land in the Flagstaff area. The foundation, administered by a partnership of local groups, would raise money for the project by selling off the small trees taken out of the forest.

Ack got a warm reception. "I had been thinking and worrying about what to do for a long time," says Trevey, now retired. "Everybody yells and screams about a timber sale, which I can understand ... the traditional Forest Service approach just didn't work." Trevey thought the agency needed to get more involved with the community, and he saw Ack's idea as an opportunity to do just that.

But the plan was nearly crushed by the bureaucracy of the Forest Service, where large-scale timber sales and huge firefighting budgets are still the way business is done. Trevey suffered through a year of negotiations within the agency before the project got a go-ahead.

"Negotiations' is a nice word," says Trevey, who went to Washington, D.C., to support the project. "The hierarchy drove me nuts. It was awful. I was ready to kick doors down."

The top Forest Service administration reluctantly signed off on the experiment, but Coconino National Forest staffers were still suspicious. Few were enthusiastic about working with the very groups that had stonewalled their plans.

"We had a lot of reservations," says John Gerritsma, the Forest Service liaison with the partnership. There was no communication from the supervisor's office about the project, he says, and many people didn't understand the proposal. "After all, if we can't sell timber, how do you expect a nonprofit to do it?" he and his colleagues asked at the time.

But the deadlock in the Southwest's federal forests convinced Gerritsma and a few colleagues to give the partnership a chance. "(Some areas) had been thinned, and there had been some burning," he says, "but the forest was becoming more dense at such a rate that we weren't having much of an impact."

The Grand Canyon Trust enlisted partners: Flagstaff and its fire department, Northern Arizona University, The Nature Conservancy, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Arizona Game and Fish, among others. The Forest Service agreed to work with the partnership, with Gerritsma assigned as full-time liaison.

The partners quickly developed an ambitious plan. They proposed to thin 100,000 acres - about 150 square miles - of federal forest land around Flagstaff, using Covington's restoration ideas. Members agreed to start with a 300-acre study plot and move on to a 10,000-acre area near Fort Valley in the spring of 1999. By thinning this much acreage each year, they said, the work would be completed in 10 years, and low-level fires could then be reintroduced to maintain the open forest. The partners also planned to control exotic plants, reseed native grasslands, and close some public roads in the project area.

Flagstaff, a growing city of over 50,000 people, is a university town with a recreation-based economy. International travelers are attracted by the Grand Canyon, and residents of Phoenix and Tucson often head uphill to Flagstaff during the summer to escape the desert heat. Because so many residents "eat the scenery" in Flagstaff, early public response to the idea of reducing fire danger was very positive, with the exception of motorized recreation groups opposed to the road closures. Local media, critical of the Forest Service in the past, also supported the partnership.

So far, so good, said many of the participants. But what about the environmental groups that had shut down logging in the Southwest? Could the plan stand up to their scrutiny?

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 accepted. 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 decision making.

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 Hoffman. "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 (see sidebar page 9). "It's a program everyone's jumping on because it suits the political needs of the time; it's the new silvicultural mythology."

"This is not a prescription to manage ponderosa pine throughout its range - at all, ever, in any way," says Doc Smith, one of the university researchers, responding to these concerns during a Forest Partnership meeting in October. "This is a way to answer some questions about ponderosa pine. It isn't for the world, and it isn't for ponderosa pine everywhere."

But other federal agencies in the region are showing interest in Covington's approach to restoration forestry. Just 80 miles from Flagstaff, the Park Service is beginning a controversial program to thin some ponderosa stands in Grand Canyon National Park.

The debate has caused the partnership to step back. After the Southwest Forest Alliance threatened to appeal the plan, the partnership agreed to use the 16-inch diameter cap within the 10,000 acres to be treated during the spring season. But Hoffman says the plan must be scaled down further if the partnership wants to avoid a legal battle.

Despite their concerns about the project and its implications, however, Hoffman and other critics are generally positive about the process. Even after a somewhat tense exchange at a three-hour partnership meeting, Hoffman says, "This hasn't become an adversarial relationship ... Wally and I have coffee, and we talk about it. Using science as a tool is very, very important to me. And maybe in two years I'll be over there with Pete and Doc and Wally saying the same thing they are. I'm willing to be swayed."

It's this willingness to be swayed that defines the partnership. In fact, the flexibility of the members has kept the effort afloat, say many participants. "I've seen them all bend," says Norm Wallen, a Sierra Club member and former city councilman who has attended the partnership meetings.

"The barriers are really breaking down among groups," says Covington. "When you get on the ground with people who have a diversity of experience and education and background and get into the crucible of the real world, everything is brought into much sharper focus."

This isn't just a scientific turf war. The restoration plan used by the partnership - whether it's Covington's approach, the Alliance's prescription, Edminster's model, or some combination - is supposed to pay its way. In the past, that problem was solved by cutting the large, valuable trees, but that's no longer an option. It's here, where research collides with financial reality, that the partnership must deal with its most difficult questions.

A Marshall Plan for the forests

"The public is not yet facing what it's going to cost to put these landscapes back together," says Brett KenCairn, who recently joined the Grand Canyon Trust as the executive director of the Forest Partnership. Citing a federal General Accounting Office report released in September, he scribbles numbers on a piece of paper. "If it costs $320 an acre to do this work ... and we're talking about 8 million acres of forest in the Southwest ... then we're looking at more than $2 billion for just this region."

The project is currently funded by private foundation grants and individual partners' budgets, but members hope the work will eventually pay for itself through the sale of small timber for fiber, fuel and fenceposts. "Unless we get a Marshall Plan for the forests," says Ack, "we need a way to make (restoration) economically sustainable."

Even so, the partnership wants to build a barrier between the science and the economics of the project. "We tried to avoid having anyone who has a direct economic interest involved in the (planning) process," says Ack. "This isn't just about consensus. This is about doing the right thing for the ecosystem."

Since the nonprofit forest foundation, not the loggers, will be responsible for selling the truckloads of timber, Ack hopes to get rid of the "perverse incentives' for timber companies to cut more and larger trees.

But the group still has some perverse incentives. Because it believes that the sale of the trees can help finance the restoration project, the debate over the size of those trees is more than scientific, and the mixed motives make a lot of people uncomfortable. "As soon as you bring the timber people in, they want to take out the bigger stuff," says Norm Wallen.

"We're fearful of a centralized, capital-intensive industry that would create a huge demand for decades," says Hoffman.

Some outside observers are also worried, and not just about cutting large trees.

"When people are trying to create markets, there's a tendency to say, "We've got a lot of (trees), we've got to bring in new industry and new technology to handle it," " says Ryan Temple, community forestry coordinator for the Forest Trust. "If you bring that industry in and treat the problem, perhaps you return the forest to the condition you wanted, but you still have the industry there, and then where do they look? Do they start lobbying the Forest Service for more timber sales? Do they go to private land? Anytime you attract one industry to an area, you have to remember that there's a finite supply."

"Boy, I can't wait until we have that problem," responds Ack. "There's so many acres of this ecosystem."

He does concede that there's a need for caution. "There's going to be a limit to the size of this new industry," he says. "We don't want another timber economy."

On the other hand, the amount of timber that will be cut is still vastly greater than the demand. Handling small-diameter timber on a large scale requires pricey new equipment, and it's a financial risk that companies may not be willing to take (see sidebar page 12). If the risk-takers don't appear, the partnership won't have to worry about another timber economy - but it will have to start lobbying in earnest for its own Marshall Plan.

Beyond the mating dance

On paper, the partnership has come a long way since the Hochderffer fire blazed through the Coconino National Forest in 1996, but it's just beginning to take trees out of the woods. For those who think the fire danger around Flagstaff is on the rise, it's been a long wait.

"It's been a two-year mating dance, and there's been some real value to that process," says Paul Summerfelt of the city's fire department. "Now, it's time to move."

"It's not just putting up projects, it's making them happen," adds Gerritsma.

Gerritsma and others say the drawn-out process has brought a diverse group of people together to solve a problem - a public relations feat that the agency could not manage by itself. "We're pretty good at our scientific skills, but not so good at our social skills," he says. "That's what these other players have brought to the partnership."

And the partnership has given participants a chance to express their concerns early on, says Covington. "What is proposed for restoration is a much more developed, more mature proposal than what would have come out of the (National Environmental Policy Act) process," he says.

But all management plans, collaborative or not, are vulnerable to lawsuits, and there's no guarantee that the partnership's plan will not be hauled into court. The recently passed Quincy Library Group plan - designed to reduce fire danger on 2.5 million acres of Forest Service land in Northern California - has become a bogeyman for national environmental groups (HCN, 11/9/98). As the Southwest Forest Alliance dusts off its legal tools, the partners may find that their common ground still has its limits.

But unlike the Quincy group, the Forest Service had a strong voice in the partnership from the beginning. Timber interests, on the other hand, have been almost silent - a sign of the group's effort to isolate the science from the economics.

And the group approaches the project as an experiment, where the research questions are still up for debate. While this attitude has been a little hard for the researchers to get used to, it may be one reason for the partnership's apparent ability to bend, not break, during its ongoing controversies.

"It's easy to sit around as a scientist or restorationist and think you know it all," says Covington. "We've spent years discussing this stuff, and sometimes it's a little frustrating. You think, "We've already been through this." But that's what this is all about."

The partnership will be in the spotlight this spring, when Flagstaff residents see the first large-scale results of the restoration project, and no one can predict the reaction. The plan still has many roadblocks to face, since even if the group can raise enough money to thin 10,000 acres each year, the future of a truly restoration-based timber industry in Flagstaff is extremely uncertain. It's a risky experiment. But the participants seem to think it's worth a try - and no one is threatening to retreat to comfortable turf.

"I got into this business to get away from people. I just wanted to quietly go out there and measure trees," says Carl Edminster. "If people wanted to use the stuff, fine, but it wasn't my game. Now, I'm in the game of working with people. I miss the trees, but I'm excited about working with the people."

Michelle Nijhuis reports for High Country News.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- 'It's really a sales program'

- 'We need to get this stuff on the table'

- Is there a market for tiny trees?

You can contact ...

* Brett KenCairn, Grand Canyon Forest Partnership, 520/774-7488;
* Martos Hoffman, Southwest Forest Alliance, 520/774-6514;
* John Gerritsma, Coconino National Forest, 520/526-0866;
* Forest Trust, 505/983-8992.

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