Pining for the Ponderosas

Posted on 6/3/2014 12:00:00 AM

Mountain Living Wally Covington April 2013

The ponderosa pine is the ultimate symbol of Flagstaff. We drop a giant steel pinecone to celebrate the New Year. We name several of our festivals with the ending phrase “in the pines.” We are completely surrounded by the largest, contiguous ponderosa pine forest as it stretches through the midsection of Arizona and reaches into New Mexico. This month, we asked William Wallace “Wally” Covington, director of the Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University, to share his thoughts on the wonders of the ponderosas and the latest efforts to help save the forests ahead of our spring and summer outdoor season.

By William Wallace Covington
Published in Mountain Living Magazine, April 2013

 Mountain Living Wally Covington April 2013 in the woods

Beginning in 1970, when I was a graduate student at the University of New Mexico, I began research in the watersheds above Santa Fe. I spent countless hours hiking and camping in the Tesuque and Santa Fe watersheds, gathering data and developing an interest and passion for ponderosa pine and mixed conifer forests that would define my career. I continued that work while a doctoral student at Yale University, ultimately landing in Flagstaff in 1975 as a professor of forest ecology at Northern Arizona University. What better place for an ecologist to work than in the midst of landscapes that range from alpine tundra to Sonoran desert?

As a professor, I had much greater latitude to pursue my interest in the changes that were occurring in forests and grasslands in the absence of natural fire. I wasn’t the first to observe that forests had changed, but I began reflecting on what these changes might mean 10, 20 and 50 years into the future.

For decades, conservationist scientists from Aldo Leopold in the 1920s to Harold Weaver in the 1940s and 1950s, as well as dozens of others, maintained that eliminating naturally occurring ground fire had had harmful outcomes on the long-term health and functioning of forests and woodlands. What I brought was ecosystem analysis and simulation skills that allowed quantitative estimates of what those changes meant over time.

People are often confused about the role of fire in ponderosa pine forests. We know that frequent, low-intensity surface fires shaped the evolutionary development of these forests and their associated plant and wildlife species for millions of years. The evidence for this can be found in the fossil record and in the scars left at the base of centuries old trees. We know that fires were not common in the crowns or tops of ponderosa pines—like those occurring today—because ponderosa trees are not adapted to survive that type of fire, nor do they produce pine cones that need intense fire to open like lodgepole pine where crown fires are the norm.

One of the most important historic roles of frequent fire was to limit populations of trees by burning up excess tree seedlings, much as the way wolves and mountain lions regulate deer and elk herds. By eliminating excess trees, frequent fire kept the forest more open, ensured abundant grasses and wildflowers, and all but eliminated the potential for catastrophic crown fires to the point where they can be uncontrollable.

 Mountain Living April 2013 Wally Covington and US Agriculture Secretary

Spark of an Idea

In the 1970s, I assumed that restoring forest health would be fairly straightforward. Fire exclusion caused the problem, therefore reintroducing controlled or prescribed burning should solve it. So I began working with the U.S. Forest Service to experiment with fire on the Fort Valley Experimental Forest north of Flagstaff. Much to my shock, one of our early experiments with prescribed fire developed into a far more—how should I say—dynamic fire than anticipated. Thank goodness we were able to put it out or my career would have taken a potentially less gratifying trajectory.

What this experiment drove home to me was that in many places the forest had passed a fuel threshold that exceeded our ability to safely reintroduce ground fire alone to achieve restoration. Even more troubling was that these unnaturally heavy fuel loads were widespread throughout the West, and, indeed, forests and woodlands around the world.

By the late 1980s, I was experimenting with different restoration treatments that included mechanically removing trees followed by prescribed burning. By carefully removing the excess trees and, of course, protecting old-growth trees, my research and the research of many of my students and colleagues at NAU demonstrated that by thinning and burning we could reinvigorate tree health, improve grass and wildflower growth and enhance wildlife habitat while simultaneously reducing the risk of catastrophic fire.

It all seemed patently obvious and straightforward that I naively thought we’d just get on with it. However, by the 1990s we were in a politically and economically conflicted time. The logging industry was collapsing and concerns about overuse of natural resources and perceived threats to some wildlife led to appeals and litigation and a profound rethinking of forest management activities.

In the late 1990s, the idea that we had to cut trees in order to restore the forest seemed completely counter-intuitive to people who considered tree cutting an unacceptable forest management tool. Furthermore, there was little to no economic value in the many small trees that had to be removed. The result was a stalemate in most vegetation management activities. The science in support of restoration was compelling, but the politics and lack of funding stymied implementation.

 Mountain Living April 2013 Woody Fire

The Will to Restore

By the mid-1990s, the size and severity of destructive wildfire was increasingly attracting the attention of policy-makers. In 1994, I testified at a Congressional field hearing in Flagstaff, where I presented research that showed that we had only 15 to 30 years before dry forest types of the West would manifest serious signs of degradation and burn in profoundly damaging ways.

I also urged restoration at the landscape scale—on the order of hundreds of thousands of acres rather than the small scale projects that were typical of the time. The Cerro Grande Fire of 2000, which burned 48,000 acres and left more than 400 families homeless in New Mexico, ushered in a new level of political will to fund restoration. One billion dollars was added to the federal budget for forest thinning and burning treatments in order to get ahead of the problem and better protect communities.

Recognizing the sudden growth in fire size and intensity, the area within my own research plots went from a few hundred acres in 1995 to 3,700 acres in early 2000. I had first argued for million-acre restoration projects in the mid-1990s. In 2009, I began pushing hard for pilot projects at least on the scale of hundreds of thousands of acres. The solution to degraded forest health and fire could only be achieved by implementing forest management at the scale of the problem.

By this time, many environmental groups that previously expressed reservations about mechanically thinning forests got on board to support restoration. The combination of scientifically supported restoration approaches, political will and popular support, not to mention dedicated advocates, contributed to the creation of the Four Forest Restoration Initiative— known as 4FRI and pronounced “four-fry”—in northern Arizona.

The 4FRI is a collaborative effort between the four forests of the Mogollon Rim: the Coconino, Kaibab, Tonto and Apache-Sitgreaves. It includes interested stakeholders representing local government, industry, conservationists, environmentalists, sportsman groups and others with the goal of restoring more than one million acres across the Mogollon Rim during the next 20 years.

The 4FRI is the largest restoration project in the country. It is a grand experiment using innovative approaches to planning and implementation at large scales. Even more encouraging and exciting, it is only one of more than 21 large landscape restoration projects in the U.S. During a very short period of time, we have leapt forward to think and act at the scale of the problem.

A Look Forward

This year, there are many reasons to be hopeful—particularly in northern Arizona. We have many of the necessary ingredients to restore our degraded forests. In November, voters in Flagstaff added one more essential ingredient to the mix: $10 million in funding to reduce fire risk and post-fire flooding on the south side of the San Francisco Peaks and to restore areas around Lake Mary to protect our local water supply. As communities, we have relied on our forests for a wealth of resources—from recreation opportunities to clean water, carbon storage, nutrient cycling, fish and wildlife habitat, native biodiversity and cultural services. Reinvesting in them makes sense, and Arizonans have a long history of working together to fix this problem.

We are in an ecological reawakening with respect to restoration and conservation. Restoration is a recent science, but it is the approach of the future, the approach of now. It is about people working together in good faith to learn about ecological functions and conservation principles, including sharing the land with current and future generations. I can say that after 40 years of working in the forests of the West, restoring them is finally within our grasp.

If one had asked me if I was hopeful for the future of our forests 20 years ago, I would have said no. But today I have never been more optimistic in my life. We have a cumulative and rigorous body of scientific information to implement preventative restoration treatments that will protect people, communities and the forest. If we continue to work together to restore these lands, and do our jobs as stewards of the land, there will be plenty of resources for all of us and plenty to share with the rest of nature.

William Wallace Covington is the Regents’ Professor of Forest Ecology, School of Forestry, and Executive Director of the Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University. Covington is known for his research and outreach activities on forest health and ecological restoration, drawn from his research since 1970 on the Ponderosa pine, aspen, dry mixed conifer, and piñon-juniper forests and woodlands of the West, particularly those that surround Flagstaff, Arizona. He has been called perhaps the nation's most visible forest scientist, by Science magazine.