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Magazine Articles

Catching Fire

July/August 2013

Photographs by Chris Crisman

There’s a new way of doing business in Arizona’s national forests. Conservationists, land managers and loggers are collaborating to restore ponderosa pine habitats, and to stop the next megafire before it even starts.

As he drove away from the summer cagin hed built outside the small Arizona town of Alpine, Gary Fanning thought it was the last he’d see of the place.

“You could see the red coming over the mountain,” he says. Fanning and his wife, Pat, had done everything asked of homeowners in what land managers call the wildland-urban interface: installed a metal roof, trimmed low branches, removed fallen pine needles. But with smoke filling the neighborhood and marshmallow-sized embers beginning to rain down, they doubted it would make a difference.

The Wallow Fire of 2011 burned more than half a million acres of Arizona’s White Mountains region. It was the largest fire in state history. But when the Fannings were allowed to return nine days later, they found that their house had been spared—indeed, only one cabin in the town burned. The fire had torched the mountainside above, consuming every tree for acres. But when it reached the last tract of national forestland above their subdivision, a strip that logging crews had thinned two years earlier, its behavior changed.

“I’m convinced that saved my property,” Fanning says. “That fire burned into the thinned area and dropped down to the ground. They just thinned about a quarter-mile strip, but that really is what saved this town.”

The Fannings are beneficiaries of what amounts to a new paradigm for forest management in the Southwest—one that integrates ecological with social well-being. It stands old preconceptions on their heads, as conservationists argue for more tree cutting, and loggers harvest mostly small trees rather than taking the largest.

Take a look at the result: Hike up into those woods, as Fanning likes to do most days. Past a sagging barbed-wire fence, stumps dot the ground under scattered, living pines. A bit farther uphill, the stumps are charred. But in late summer there’s ample evidence that this is much more than a firebreak for the houses below. Waist-high bunch grasses, blooming wildflowers and resprouting oaks compete to hide the stumps. Warblers and juncos chirp in the bushes. What’s here, three years after the logging equipment left and a year after the fire, is a lively native ecosystem.

What isn’t so apparent is the painstaking collaborative work that produced this result. Ed Smith lived that. For 18 years, he served as a forest ecologist and program manager for The Nature Conservancy in Flagstaff, which lies in the same dry ponderosa pine forest as Alpine 200 miles away—and whose edges have been singed in recent years.

“Fire’s just an inevitability here,” says Smith, a soft-spoken ecologist and amateur mushroom hunter. But for much of the 20th century the notion of accepting fi re as a natural, indigenous and even beneficial force was anathema. The Forest Service strove to extinguish every flame, even as loggers cut most of the forest’s large, valuable trees. The result was a slow-motion ecological disaster. Open stands of big pines with fire-resistant bark were replaced by choked stands of small-diameter trees with far less value as wildlife habitat.

Such stands become a tinderbox under dry conditions. By the mid-1990s, uncontrollably severe fi res were growing in size and frequency. In 1996, the Horseshoe and Hochderffer fires burned about 25,000 acres near the Flagstaff city limits. An environmental lawsuit temporarily halted logging throughout the region. Most of the trees big enough to cut for a profi t were gone anyway.

“We had a bad situation,” Smith says. Stakeholders were creating a deadlock, and forest health suffered for it. “Fires were getting worse. We came to realize that we needed to do a number of things: reduce fuels, restore ecological functioning, figure out the economics—and earn the social license to do all that.”

Smith earned that license by investing time with a broad grass-roots coalition formed in 1996: the Greater Flagstaff Forests Partnership. It set out to thin forest stands according to ecological criteria, such as evidence of how many trees per acre the land had once supported. A similar partnership cropped up in the White Mountains region. Thanks to countless meetings and fi eld trips where conservationists, loggers, agency offi cials and others set aside differences and came to what Forest Service fire ecologist Mary Lata calls “violent agreement,” those efforts bore fruit. Guided by the Greater Flagstaff Forests Partnership and other stakeholders, the Forest Service thinned tens of thousands of acres around Flagstaff. And in the White Mountains region in 2004 it initiated the nation’s first long-term “stewardship contract,” allowing the thinning of about 10,000 acres a year on Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest lands.

Most of those thinned acres have been near towns, like that strip of land near the Fannings’ house in Alpine. But that’s changing with the onset of a new, larger project—the Four Forest Restoration Initiative, or 4FRI. It’s an effort to restore ecological health to not thousands but millions of acres across four national forests in northern Arizona. And the 4FRI itself is only one of several large, collaborative efforts funded by the federal Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program, established in 2009 to provide support for landscape-scale projects that cross administrative boundaries and can affect entire ecosystems. The benefits will be manifold: Projections indicate that over 10 years, the Forest Service could save at least $194 million in fi refi ghting costs in Arizona if the 4FRI treatments are implemented.

“Treatments have been small, piecemeal,” says Smith. “They’ve been strategically located near towns to limit fi re effects on human habitation. They work. But it’s been a narrow band around towns. What 4FRI is all about is going from narrow bands to wider swaths. And what’s critical about doing these larger treatments is having fire be able to roam the landscape again.”

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PLACE_HOLDER Prior forest thinning helped save Gary Fanning's home and the town of Alpine, Arizona, from the 2011 Wallow Fire—the largest in the state's history. © Chris Crisman

In the White Mountains, much of the thinning work has been done by crews overseen by Dale Walker, an understated fireplug of a man who’s a fifth-generation logger. It’s an efficient operation, and a far cry from the bad old days when loggers clear-cut old-growth stands with chain saws. Agile feller-bunchers—vehicles on wide tires that can cut and stack multiple trees at the same time—spiral through the woods like whirligig beetles, cutting pines marked in blue paint by Forest Service crews. Skidders haul them to a landing, where a technician in an excavator equipped with a grapple and flail strips the branches and in the blink of an eye cuts the trees into 10- to 16-foot lengths.

“Most of my guys are under 30,” Walker says. “They have really good hand-eye coordination because they’ve been playing Nintendo.” Logging here is a work of precision and joysticks.

Logs larger than about 8 inches in diameter are cut into lumber. Skinny or warped logs are turned into wood pellets for stoves. Even the thinnest branches and green needles find a use: Shipped to a nearby power plant, they produce enough electricity to power thousands of homes.

“We pretty much use the whole thing,” says Walker. “We try to get maximum value out of these trees.”
What’s left is a fair bit of churned-up ground, but as the area around Alpine shows, plants with access to more light and other resources quickly hide logging scars. The remaining trees thrive, replicating the way the ponderosa pine forest once grew: a “groupy-clumpy” structure featuring bunches of variably sized pines and oaks separated by openings. It’s a forest resilient to fire, since flames typically remain on the ground rather than racing through the trees’ crowns. The Forest Service plans periodic low-intensity burns in thinned areas because they’ll help maintain an open forest structure.

Under 4FRI protocols, loggers will cut small, highly flammable—but commercially worthless—trees. That will open the forest floor and reduce fire danger. But loggers will also be able to cut a limited quantity of larger, more valuable trees. The proceeds from the sale of those trees will help offset the project’s cost. The economics are promising. A Montana-based fi rm plans to build a new mill in Winslow, Arizona, designed to produce fi nished wood products from 300,000 acres of national forestland in the next 10 years.

But there aren’t enough trained loggers in Arizona to thin that much forest. Nor does the Forest Service have enough staff who can mark trees for cutting across that many acres. If 4FRI is to succeed, a new generation of loggers trained as foresters will be needed. Guided by stake-holders who have been hashing out what Arizona’s renewed pine forests should look like, the Forest Service will write general  guidelines; then the loggers will choose the individual trees to be cut. They will, for example, pick which trees in a clump to remove, though an overall size cap will prohibit cutting of the largest, and the prescriptive details will dictate how large and dense clumps should be.

“It’s hard for us to think about letting go,” says Smith. “But it’s going to be the worker in the woods, with a crew of people who will be foresters, making decisions. Those will be good, skilled jobs.” To that end, the Conservancy is helping regional community colleges fi nd resources to develop training courses for forest workers.

The Conservancy is also collaborating with a Forest Service lab in California to integrate more advanced technology into logging operations. A system of in-cab GPS units, computer tablets and infrared sensors will enable loggers and land managers to communicate and share data on the trees that are cut and those left standing.

The result should be a healthier, more fi re-resistant ponderosa pine forest across broad stretches of the Southwest—with global implications. Matt Hurteau, a forest ecologist at Penn State University, points out that a forest in which trees largely resist fi re is a carbon sink, whereas one that burns severely can release carbon into the air for a long time.

“We’ve done the ponderosa pine forest a real disservice by suppressing fi re for so long,” he says. “In order to restore it at a scale that is ecologically meaningful, something like the 4FRI will get us a long way there.”

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Densely packed ponderosa pines create a fire risk in the Coconino National Forest‘s Oak Creek Canyon. Forests like these are slated to be thinned under 4FRI. © Chris Crisman