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The "Flagstaff Model"
Flagstaff, Arizona, a rapidly growing city of more than 50,000, is nestled in the largest ponderosa pine forest in the world, a swath of trees that extends from western New Mexico to north-central Arizona. The sharp-edged San Francisco Peaks, thickly cloaked with pine, fir, spruce, and aspen, rise high on the northern skyline. It's a beautiful setting, but also a flammable one. Several times in recent years large wildfires have cast palls of smoke over the city and made residents cognizant of the danger inherent in living in a fire-prone forest.
It is because the residents of Flagstaff both love their trees and fear wildfires that they have launched an ambitious campaign to restore the surrounding forest. This effort is being closely watched in other communities because of the controversy it has engendered, and because federal officials have pointed to the "Flagstaff Model" as a template for cooperative restoration efforts elsewhere (Jehl 2000). The primary focus of restoration activities in the Flagstaff area is the Greater Flagstaff Forests Partnership (GFFP), a collaborative effort that has as its goal the restoration of 100,000 acres (40,000 hectares) of forest ringing the city. It is an ambitious plan that illustrates both the potential for forest restoration and its pitfalls, and that raises questions highly applicable to restorationists elsewhere, especially: if this is such a good idea, why is it so hard to implement?
"The Finest Timber in the World"
Flagstaff is an appropriate hub of forest restoration, since the extractive excesses that have altered southwestern forests were unbridled here. As Euro-American settlement of northern Arizona began in the 1870s, the area's resources were rich and accessible. Ponderosa pine trees towered over bunchgrasses in open, sunny forests. Old trees developed conspicuous yellow bark and grew to a meter and more in diameter. In 1876 one visitor, George Brewer, wrote that these so-called yellow pines constituted a "very extensive belt of the finest timber in the world" contiguous to the city's site (Cline 1976).
In 1882 Flagstaff's first sawmill opened, with the primary purpose of producing supplies for the new transcontinental Atlantic & Pacific Railroad. The rails allowed easy shipping, and in 1883 alone the mill produced 20 million board feet (47,200 square meters) of what was described as "magnificent clear lumber" (Hamilton 1884) and shipped as far east as New York (Ashworth 1991). Other sawmills followed, and logging of old-growth pines (Figure 1.1) continued as a significant industry into the late twentieth century.
Logging was conducted through clearcutting in the early days, and entire mile-square sections were laid bare (Ashworth 1991; Menzel and Covington 1997). Even after the San Francisco Mountain Forest Reserve, a forerunner of northern Arizona's national forests, was established in 1898, with regulations requiring the retention of "seed trees," few old trees were left. On Woody Mountain, southwest of Flagstaff, loggers cut an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 pines with an average diameter at breast height (dbh) of 20 inches (51 centimeters) in 1904, and on more than 450 acres (180 hectares) left only 64 seed trees (Ashworth 1991). In 1904 a United States Geological Survey report predicted that the area's "[c]losely logged lands will not again bear a forest equal to the one cut off during the next 220 to 250 years" (Leiburg et al. 1904).
Newcomers also quickly took advantage of what one explorer called the region's "luxuriant" and "abundant" bunchgrasses (Beale 1858). By 1887 an estimated 200,000 sheep grazed the San Francisco Peaks area (Cline 1976). Ranchers imported huge herds of cattle, and by 1888 a Prescott newspaper reported that "many portions of the [Arizona] Territory are now overstocked to an alarming extent" (Cline 1976). Severe drought in 1891 and 1892 killed livestock in droves. Ranchers went broke, and long- term damage was done to rangelands around Flagstaff, across northern Arizona, and throughout the Southwest (Leiburg et al. 1904; Baker et al. 1988; Abruzzi 1995). Cattle and to a lesser extent sheep grazing continue at a much smaller scale today.
Wildlife populations also changed dramatically. Grizzly bears (Ursus arctos horribilis) and gray wolves (Canis lupus) were extirpated in the first half of the twentieth century. Merriam's elk (Cervus elaphus merriami), which were scarce or absent during the nineteenth century, were driven to extinction early on (Davis 1982); Rocky Mountain elk (C. e. nelsoni), a different subspecies, were introduced in the first half of the twentieth century and have proliferated; pronghorn (Antilocapra americana), meanwhile, have grown much scarcer (Davis 1982). Heavy grazing and browsing by elk and mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) have almost certainly helped alter the forest's herbaceous understory.
The area's forests changed quickly. Tree-ring analysis has shown that pines in Fort Valley, 10 miles northwest of Flagstaff, burned at average intervals of between 4.4 and 17 years (Dieterich 1980), consistent with the 2- to 8-year fire interval found at many sites in northern Arizona (Moore et al. 1999). These fires raced through the flammable grasses and killed some small trees but rarely burned the crowns of large pines (Woolsey 1911; Cooper 1960). The last significant fire in Fort Valley, as in Walnut Canyon just east of Flagstaff, was recorded in 1876 (Dieterich 1980; Swetnam et al. 1990); the last at Camp Navajo west of Flagstaff occurred in 1883 (Fulé et al. 1997). Logging slash fueled fires even in logged areas, though, and as early as 1885 loggers and sawmill crews were sent to fight forest fires near Flagstaff (Ashworth 1991), while Forest Service firefighters were organized in the early twentieth century.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, concerns about deforestation and overgrazing had grown. The establishment of forest reserves and the U.S. Forest Service was one result; so was the beginning of a more rigorous forest science. In 1908 forester Gus Pearson helped found the first forest experiment station on federal land in Fort Valley. With Theodore Woolsey, he also established permanent forest plots in northern Arizona and New Mexico, to be remeasured at five-year intervals (Woolsey 1911).
Pearson's first assignment was to ascertain why ponderosa pine was not reproducing in cutover areas: partly, he found, because loggers had left few seed trees, and partly because in the Southwest few years are wet enough to allow widespread survival of ponderosa seedlings. He and other foresters were relieved when one such year came in 1919 (Pearson 1923). Growing conditions that year were further enhanced by a grazing-induced lack of competition from grasses, and by a lack of low-level fires that might have killed seedlings.
The cumulative result of these changes was profound. Within a century the forest around Flagstaff was first open and composed largely of big pines and bunchgrasses; then denuded of large trees and severely overgrazed; and finally composed primarily of dense thickets of young pines, many of them established in 1919. A typical example is close at hand to the experimental station Pearson established. In the Gus Pearson Natural Area, an unlogged stand whose trees have been measured at five-year intervals since 1920, a reconstruction of 1876 forest conditions conducted in the 1990s resulted in striking comparisons (Covington et al. 1997). Where an average of 22.8 pines per acre (56 per hectare) had grown in small clumps in 1876, more than 1,250 per acre (3,000 per hectare) grew in continuous stands in the 1990s. More than 98 percent were smaller than 16 inches (40 centimeters) in diameter, and many formed dense "doghair" thickets of small trees. Buried in accumulated dead needles, the forest floor supported scant understory vegetation.
Throughout the region large, old yellow pines have become rare, and some that remain are dying at increased rates due to competition with abundant younger trees (Mast et al. 1999). By the 1970s foresters were concerned enough about these forest changes to conduct experimental treatments aimed at thinning dense forests. Some used fire alone. In Fort Valley Jack Dieterich and Stephen Sackett of the Forest Service and Wally Covington of Northern Arizona University (NAU) implemented a series of low-level prescribed fires that inadvertently killed many old-growth pines whose roots were baked when thick blankets of duff around their trunks burned; younger trees, lacking that duff, tended to survive (Covington and Sackett 1984; Sackett et al. 1996). Simply returning fire to the forests around Flagstaff, it appeared, would not thin them sufficiently of small trees, and might kill big trees—and it was dangerous, since any fire in the fuel-rich forests could become a conflagration.
A Pioneering Partnership
To area residents, the most significant ecological change has been the increased fire danger resulting from increased fuel loads. According to figures compiled by the Coconino National Forest, all ten of the largest wildfires in the forest's history have occurred since 1970 (GFFP 2001; Figure 2.5). Both the number and the acreage of large wildfires have increased, and so has the percentage of area burned in which fires burned so hot that they destroyed entire stands. The year 1996 was a particularly devastating year, as more than 25,000 acres (10,000 hectares) burned just northwest of Flagstaff. Over $6.2 million was spent battling those blazes.
Such wildfires have caused extensive ecological damage. Soils on steep slopes have eroded; invasive plants have spread widely into burned areas; territories occupied by such species as Mexican spotted owls and northern goshawks have been burned so severely that they have become uninhabitable by those species. But the driving concern remained fire danger to human lives and property.
The result of these concerns was the establishment of the Grand Canyon Forests Partnership in 1996 (the name was changed to Greater Flagstaff Forests Partnership in 2002). By then most logging in the area had been discontinued due to a lack of large trees, environmental concerns, and unfavorable market conditions (Nijhuis 1999). The Coconino National Forest and city of Flagstaff had already conducted limited thinning in and near the city to reduce fuel loads and fire danger. Researchers from NAU had conducted a restoration experiment at the Gus Pearson Natural Area that had shown how trees, understory, and soil responded when a dense stand was thinned and then burned (Covington et al. 1997); many of the results from that experiment are summarized in this book. The partnership aimed to do this on a much larger scale, setting as its goal the treatment of 100,000 acres (40,000 hectares) of national forest land around the city in ten years (Figure 1.2). It hoped to accomplish this in a way that was economically sustainable and socially equitable.
The partnership was set up as a formal collaboration between the newly formed, nonprofit Greater Flagstaff Forests Foundation (GFFF) and the Forest Service. The foundation, under the guidance of an advisory board, would recommend restoration activities to the Forest Service, and would implement much of the work itself by contracting with loggers. It would raise some of the money for its work by selling wood from thinned forests. The Forest Service retained decision-making power and would prepare environmental assessments. Because the GFFP was formally recognized by the federal government as a "reinvention laboratory," the Forest Service was permitted to waive certain policies and regulations, but not laws, in preparing treatments.
The advisory board included representatives from land management agencies, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Arizona Game and Fish Department, the Grand Canyon Trust (a regional environmental group), the Flagstaff Fire Department, The Nature Conservancy, various departments of NAU, and others. The partnership hoped to restore natural ecosystem functions, especially fire, in a sustainable manner. In doing so, it would reduce the risk of large fires. It would also test a variety of restoration approaches—ecological, operational, economic, and social. In some places it would implement full-scale forest restoration; in others, driven by aesthetic, social, wildlife, or other concerns, it would limit its work to fuel reduction. In restoration areas it would try to control noxious weeds, close and revegetate unnecessary roads, and restore native grasses and other herbaceous plants. Its goal was not to return the forest to its precise condition before Euro-American settlement, but to restore ecological processes that would allow the forest to sustain itself. The partnership delineated its purpose in a detailed mission statement that outlined the ideals of ecology, community collaboration, and economy it hoped would be realized by 2020 (Boxes 1.1–1.3).
Realizing that mission, though, was fraught with difficulty. The trouble began in 1998, when the partnership designated Fort Valley as the site for its first large-scale efforts. This in itself was an expression of local love for the landscape: a wildfire in Fort Valley would more likely threaten the flanks of the San Francisco Peaks, the city's scenic backdrop, than the city itself. In order to test restoration prescriptions and operational techniques, the partners agreed to treat a 450-acre (185-hectare) demonstration area first before shifting their attention to the larger landscape.
The Ecological Vision
The research and demonstration blocks (Figure 1.2) that made up the demonstration area numbered twelve; of these, nine were to be thinned and burned according to prescriptions based on variations of restoration approaches developed by Covington and colleagues at NAU, while the remaining three were control blocks that would remain untreated. These approaches are based on the idea that tree thinning can be used to create a forest structure emulating that of the presettlement period, thereby allowing ecosystem processes, especially frequent, low-level fire, to sustain themselves (Covington et al. 1997; Mast et al. 1999; Moore et al. 1999; Box 1.1; Box 13.1). To that end, crews were trained to identify all evidence of trees present when Euro-American settlement began. Because the bark of ponderosa pines typically turns yellow at an age of a century or more, all yellow pines were considered to be of presettlement origin and were left standing. Crews also identified any signs of trees that had stood before logging began, such as stumps, stump holes, fallen logs, and snags. Around each of these traces, younger "replacement trees" were designated to be left standing.
Three different thinning prescriptions on the treated blocks left different numbers of trees standing. Three blocks were thinned to "full restoration" specifications, which left either 1.5 or 3 replacement trees standing for each evidence of a missing presettlement tree (1.5 if the trees were over 16 inches [40 centimeters] dbh, 3 if smaller). The other blocks were thinned to a 2/4 or 3/6 replacement rate. All these prescriptions left more than 1 tree standing per presettlement tree in order to account for mortality that might occur during or after treatment, and because the relatively small replacement trees have much less biomass than the trees they replaced. Trees were marked by a Forest Service crew and thinned by professional loggers. Experimental monitoring blocks were set up throughout the units by NAU's Ecological Restoration Institute in order to assess short-term and long-term effects on understory recovery, impacts on soil, and other ecological parameters. The thinning was accomplished in 1998 and is summarized in Table 1.1. Thinning slash was piled and later burned, after which the treated blocks were broadcast burned. These prescribed burns were completed in 2000 and 2001.
Excerpted from Ecological Restoration of Southwestern Ponderosa Pine Forests by Peter Friederici. Copyright © 2003 Arizona Board of Regents. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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