The ERI is a pioneer in conducting research and disseminating information about restoration treatment outcomes, strategies, and techniques in the Southwest. We seek to provide the best available knowledge about restoration to a wide variety of audiences, from academic researchers to professional land managers to members of the public. Our work focuses on both ecological and sociopolitical issues, and falls into three general categories: 1) research, 2) education, and 3) outreach, conducted through events, publications, and assistance with treatment implementation.
History of the ERI
The Ecological Restoration Institute is an independent research branch of Northern Arizona University. It is directed by forest ecologist and NAU Regents' Professor W. Wallace Covington, who has been studying the ecology of southwestern ponderosa pine forests since the mid-1970s.
Covington's early work in the Flagstaff area, conducted with Stephen Sackett and other researchers with the U.S. Forest Service, focused on how fire could be reintroduced into ponderosa pine forests that had grown dense after a century of livestock grazing, timber cutting, and fire exclusion. The research showed that, while fire is necessary in these forests, simply reintroducing fire into dense forests without preparation was a recipe for disaster. Dense thickets of small trees often survived prescribed fires, while the roots of large, old pines were often fatally heated by the smoldering of large accumulations of downed needles. It became clear that fire alone could not restore southwestern ponderosa pine forests to health.
In conjunction with NAU's Margaret Moore and other researchers, Covington developed a proposal to restore these forests by first thinning out small trees. The goal was to return forest structure and the density of trees to conditions approximately those of natural forests before they were disturbed by the impacts of Euro-American settlers. After thinning, regular low-intensity fires could safely be reintroduced; they, in turn, would regulate the future structure of the forest.
This approach gained national prominence after large fires seared the Southwest during the drought year of 1996. During that year Covington became the director of the new Ecological Restoration Program at NAU, which operated within the university's School of Forestry. Researchers from the program began to work with land managers to design, implement, and monitor restoration treatments at a variety of sites in the Southwest, the largest of them at Mount Trumbull in the Uinkaret Mountains of far northern Arizona.
In 2000, with the aid of federal funding from the Bureau of Land Management, the program evolved into the ERI, which now has more than 30 employees engaged in research, outreach, and education. The ERI continues to gain federal and state support for its projects. This funding has facilitated a wide array of research work by ERI staff, students, and partners. The ERI has also directly benefited southwestern communities by providing technical expertise to policy-makers, professional land managers, and community members seeking to restore ecological integrity and reduce fire risks in the region's forests.
In October 2004, ERI became one of three state-level institutes approved by Congress to work to solve problems of forest health and unnatural wildfire through science-based approaches. The other two institutes will be housed at Colorado State University and New Mexico Highlands University. The three institutes will collaborate closely on research, education, and outreach aimed at implementing and improving restoration work in the interior West. Read more about this exciting new initiative at http://sweri.eri.nau.edu.