Northern Arizona U. looks back, moves forward

Presettlement forests provide map for management

  • Wallace Covington

    NAU photo by Stephen P. Schweitzer
  • Margaret Moore

    NAU photo by Stephen P. Schweitzer
  • Early loggers removing ponderosa in northern Arizona

    Courtesy Days Inn Corporation
  • Dog-haired pines in Arizona's Coconino National Forest

    Stephen P. Schweitzer, NAU

Note: this story is one of several feature articles in a special issue about the West's forestry schools.

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - Most scientific researchers would rather calculate a value for pi by hand than wander into a messy public policy debate. After all, what's the point? Policy makers want simple answers to complicated questions. They want certainties, not the cautious probabilities most scientists have to offer. Worst of all, policy makers control research money, set university budgets and keep lists of people they don't like.

So what would lure into the debate a professional whose success rests on publishing technical journal articles policy makers could never decipher?

Perhaps simple concern over the fate of the forest.

At least, that's how researchers at Northern Arizona University, led by Wallace Covington and Margaret Moore, explain their increasingly deliberate effort to interject themselves into the confrontation over the best way to protect the Southwest's forests. They have come into the war zone with an intriguing tool - a partial portrait of the robust, diverse ponderosa pine forest that covered the Southwest before white settlers arrived. After a century of harvesting trees as if they were crops, that portrait makes it possible to imagine an alternative: Manage logging so that it rehabilitates millions of acres of ecologically impoverished forest.

Virtual forestry

The scientific effort has been spearheaded by Covington, a Yale-trained ecologist who came to this university in Flagstaff in 1975, and Moore, an ecologist who arrived from the University of Minnesota in 1986. An interdisciplinary array of scientists have provided research support, including entomologist Mike Wagner, plant ecophysiologist Tom Kolb, soil ecologist Steve Hart, and tree-ring specialist Joy Mast.

The first phase of the research was to "reconstruct" presettlement forests in several intensively studied areas.

Researchers mapped each area. Using tree-ring dating, they calculated the ages of most of the trees, stumps and decaying wood samples. Then they used computer modeling techniques to sweep away all the trees that had grown up since 1890 while electronically reincarnating the vanished giants.

The forests they grew on their screens contained within them smaller habitats: patches of giant ponderosa pine with a grassy undergrowth, young trees, and so on. This mosaic was caused by fire, insects, disease and other natural cycles.

But the forest was dominated by centuries-old trees, with rich ecological niches provided by snags (dead trees) mixed in with meadows and aspen groves.

The presettlement forests were healthier than today's crowded, even-age forests, which are vulnerable to devastating wildfires and disease. Before white settlement, there were anywhere from 10 to 50 trees per acre - far fewer than modern, managed forests which pack in several hundred trees per acre. The ancient trees probably shaded less than 30 percent of the forest floor, letting in enough sunlight to support a lush growth of grasses.

"The key was the range of variability," says Moore. "It's a matter of scale, not just average density. It's a question of patchiness and diversity, not just counting trees."

Once they had reconstructed the ancient forests on the computer, the researchers used computer models to predict what happens, for example, if the forest managers leave all the dead snags, or don't cut any trees more than 18 inches in diameter. Or what happens if they allow cattle to graze, or let loggers clear most of the trees between 5 and 15 inches in diameter every 10 years, or utilize periodic controlled burns, or clearcut scattered areas to create meadows, or cut down large stands of mistletoe-infested trees.

Simple answers are wrong

The researchers have paid a price for tackling such controversial issues. Their findings have been used to support arguments across the spectrum. The timber industry seized on the findings to justify increasing harvests; the Forest Service brandished the results in adopting controversial policies such as a management plan for goshawks which calls for thinning the forest. Meanwhile, environmentalists wondered warily whether the university scientists had been co-opted by industry. "Their message is so muddled it will continue to be seen as a green light to continue to do industrial logging in the Southwest," says Phoenix activist Robin Silver.

The scientists are all too aware of the myriad interpretations - and misinterpretations - of their work.

"We've been the bouncing ball - back and forth, back and forth," says Moore wearily. "We've been misquoted constantly - or quoted incompletely. They quote us as saying the forest is too dense, but then don't mention that we're also saying you don't cut the presettlement trees older than about 100 years old.

"At first, we tried to ignore the misquotes and unfair criticism; then we started standing up for ourselves and fighting back a little bit. That's the nice thing about the university - once you've got tenure. You can do solid research, and say, 'Here are the results.' "

Ironically, the day after she said this, her science partner-husband was misquoted in the Arizona Republic, in a front-page spread on the closure of the last Kaibab Industries timber mill in Arizona. The article said Covington recommended "the cutting of most old trees, removing vegetation from the base of large trees and allowing more controlled fires."

Covington had recommended saving the old trees.

"I've made it clear for 20 years there's been a population crash of old-growth trees - leave the damn things alone!" said Covington.

"You go to all this trouble to set the record straight, to do good science, to make accurate statements," fumed Moore, "and the newspaper says you recommend cutting all the old trees."

The scientists have also had to put up with misinterpretation from those who want to apply their site-specific findings - most of which pertain to Arizona's ponderosa pine forests - to other areas and other tree species. The pair repeatedly emphasize that new baseline data have to be prepared for each landscape.

"This recipe approach is a real problem," says Covington. "We're doing studies in North Dakota, Washington state, into Mexico - we're trying to understand that range of variability. We'd never say the Black Hills data should be extrapolated to Durango, Mexico. People want a simple answer, and it's not simple."

Curing political schizophrenia

Covington and Moore made headlines this year when the Southwest was hit with a huge double message: The rescissions bill signed into law in July opened up vast tracts of forest for salvage logging. Then, in August, a successful environmental lawsuit shut down all logging in Arizona and New Mexico until the Forest Service made sure their forest plans adequately protected the Mexican spotted owl. Some timber was freed up for cutting last month (HCN, 10/30/95).

The political schizophrenia resulting from the shutdowns made Covington and Moore the people of the hour in Arizona, where Arizona Republican Rep. Jon Kyl held a hearing centered on the scientists' belief that the right kind of logging can play a crucial role in restoring the Southwest's forests.

After environmentalists and industry representatives took turns identifying themselves with Covington and Moore and challenging their opponents, they all filed onto buses and journeyed in relative peace to Covington's experimental plot.

The plot they visited grows ponderosa pine on the Pearson National Forest just outside Flagstaff. There, university scientists are experimenting with restoring an ecologically diverse, "old-growth" forest on a four-acre patch where they can control tree densities, measure soil nutrients and cautiously restore fire to the system. One portion of the managed forest has been left with its hundreds of trees per acre, while another portion was thinned to more closely resemble the patchy spaciousness of the presettlement forest.

In this latter area researchers then removed a century's accumulation of highly flammable pine duff from the ground and scattered mown hay from nearby meadows to stimulate the growth of the grassy understory of the presettlement forest.

The experiment showed that the larger trees grew much faster once freed from competition with hordes of smaller trees. They also produced more pitch, which helps them heal faster and resist insect infestations.

Scientists also found that using fire without first thinning and removing deadfall poses tough problems. Working with the Forest Service, they tried a controlled burn in one section of the forest after cutting down most of the small trees but before removing the accumulated dead wood. The flames damaged the large, surviving trees more severely than scientists expected. They concluded that in addition to removing most of the small trees, forest managers will have to clear a protective zone around the remaining large trees before burning.

Those findings suggest what sounds like heresy to some environmentalists: only the timber industry can provide the ground-level labor necessary to thin the forest and protect the remaining big trees.

"If you get rid of the timber industry, you don't have any infrastructure in place to remove the smaller diameter trees," says ecologist Moore. "You need to switch to some combination of the timber industry and service contracts - cutting the small diameter trees and removing the fuel load. The timber industry can make money off that - there's millions of acres out there. They'll have maybe 60, 70, 80 years worth of work" to return the forest to a healthy, low-density mosaic in which fire could once again safely play a major role.

The Forest Service made $500 to $1,000 per acre from an experiment with this type of logging, says Covington, adding that timber companies made a bit more. The profit from selling the thickets of small trees can generate enough money to pay for the other, needed restoration work, suggesting that large-scale restoration is economically viable.

The profit, of course, pales when compared to the $10,000 per acre loggers would earn if they had gone for the remaining large trees.

But the recent lawsuits and political setbacks suffered by the region's logging industry have made it clear that business cannot continue as usual. Some logging companies are considering directions they wouldn't have contemplated in years past.

For instance, Jim Matsen took several field trip seminars sponsored by Northern Arizona University while he was vice president of Kaibab Industries, a job he left when the company closed its Fredonia mill in January. He agreed that the timber industry should refocus its efforts on the smaller trees and noted that most mills can profitably cut six-inch trees already. "I think a lot of people in the industry held out too long, saying we could only survive on cutting the larger-size trees without looking at the alternatives," says Matsen.

He says the key to survival for the timber industry probably lies in accepting a new role based on leaving most of the larger trees alone and thinning the small trees.

"We've just got total gridlock brought about by appeals, goshawks, spotted owls, whatever," he says. "If we could just reach agreement that we've got way too many trees and we've got to do something about it, then the capital, facilities and marketing will be brought to bear.

"But that's not going to happen if you're worried that as soon as you get the new plant built, there's not going to be any wood available," adds Matsen. "It's time for the environmental community to switch tactics and start encouraging this kind of development."

A university with an open mind

It's possible that the scientists' next move - a plan for restoration on Mount Trumbull, a 10,000-acre ponderosa forest on Bureau of Land Management land - may generate just that kind of encouragement. The plan would establish an ecological baseline in the forest, while ensuring that timber companies turn a profit thinning the understory and clearing protective zones around the larger trees, which would be virtually untouched.

Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt strongly supports the experiment and has promised to scrounge up research money to pay for studies there. The area provides an ideal test case, since the forest harbors a fair number of old-growth trees. All face an alarming mortality rate as a result of the competition, infestations and fires caused by a dense understory of younger trees.

"We figure the project will yield $10 million (in timber fees) to the federal government," says Covington. "We now know enough to design a good ecosystem management experiment - and we certainly know what will happen if we do nothing."

Even the fiercest critics of current forest management techniques see hope in the university's work.

"The Forest Service consistently distorts the science," says environmentalist Robin Silver. "But at least Covington and Moore passed peer review. That's more than you can say for the Forest Service biologists. Every single opportunity the Forest Service has had to manage resources in a credible way that could be peer reviewed they've refused. That's why so many of us have become so hardened."

Moore says her time in the eye of the storm has proved instructive - and frustrating.

"It's difficult to get money for this kind of research. We went to different places, and people just weren't interested," she says, noting that they did get a grant from the Salt River Project utility. It wanted to know how to increase runoff into its dams and irrigation systems.

"People say, "But doesn't getting money from a utility bias you?" I say, 'Hell no: I collect the data; I analyze the data; and I publish the results.' I'm not interested in getting Salt River Project more water, nor am I necessarily interested in keeping Kaibab Industries going - although they've helped us with in-kind support."

Moore says the researchers have been fortunate in receiving the support of the university administration - even when they found it difficult to attract funding.

"The liberal arts universities can be more free-wheeling in their research - they don't have to worry as much about offending the administration within the university," says Covington, who chose to get his degree in ecosystem management at Yale specifically because it wasn't a land-grant school focused narrowly on the economic needs of farmers, ranchers and loggers. For the same reason, he sought a position at Northern Arizona University - a non-land-grant university that emphasizes interdisciplinary approaches, team teaching and an emphasis on ecosystems.

"But no matter where you are, the availability of research money imposes constraints," Covington says. "We were lucky: We got a lot of support from the university when we were getting started. Until just recently, it was hard to get funding to do big questions that go to the very roots of our assumptions about how to manage the forests. But now we're finally looking at the health of the ecosystem - not just looking at all the parts."

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