Tag Archives: u.s. forest service

wildfire

How Arizona wildfires impact water supply, economy

Arizona is home to the largest contiguous ponderosa pine forest in North America, with a single stand stretching from near Flagstaff all the way to the White Mountains of the east.

And in the last 10 years, 25 percent of it burned, said Patrick Graham, Arizona state director for the Nature Conservancy.

Fire suppression and subsequent cleanup costs have risen far beyond estimated prevention costs, according to studies by the Nature Conservancy, Sierra Nevada Conservancy, the U.S. Forest Service and the Ecological Restoration Institute (ERI) at Northern Arizona University (NAU), among others.

The tourism industry in Arizona, an estimated 20 percent of the state’s economy, is largely dependent on the health of forested lands and other wildlife preserves, a 2007 report by the Governor’s Health Oversight Council stated.

But “wildfires affect the entire state — not just the north,” said Eric Marcus, executive director at the Northern Arizona Sustainable Economic Development Initiative.

A full-cost economic analysis of the 2010 Schultz fire outside of Flagstaff by the ERI revealed the deeper effect of forest fires. More than 15,000 acres of forest were burned, causing an estimated $147 million in economic damage, the report found. An investment of only $15 million could have prevented this catastrophe, said Marcus.

Fire and water

But most of the damage from these wildfires occurs after the fire has been extinguished.

When major wildfires remove the trees and grasses necessary for holding soil in place, a once standard rainstorm can now cause dangerous floods and massive erosion, filling up the reservoirs and ultimately decreasing the carrying capacity of our water supply, said Bruce Hallin, director of water rights and contracts with the Salt River Project.

“These catastrophic wildfires go in and the fire burns so hot that it burns everything,” said Hallin. “It turns it into this wasteland.”

But nothing can hold back sediment from flowing directly into the water supply if a fire were to ignite downstream from the reservoirs, such as the Sunflower fire in 2012. If ash-laden water were to be delivered to processing plants, treatment costs would increase dramatically, thus increasing the price of the water, said Marcus.

The 2002 Hayman fire in Colorado deposited more than 1 million cubic yards of sediment into Denver’s primary drinking water supply. To this day, cleanup is still underway to restore Strontia Springs Reservoir, with costs exceeding $150 million.

“Ultimately, through forest thinning, we don’t want to get to that point,” said Hallin.
One century ago, Arizona’s northern forests were more akin to open grasslands interspersed with towering ponderosas. Ignited by lightning, the grass beneath the trees would carry a smoldering fire along the ground, burning the young trees while only charring the thick bark of the older, more established ponderosas.

Need for thinning

But Arizona’s northern forests have “all departed from the way they were historically,” said Diane Vosick, director of policy and partnerships at ERI.

When grazing came through in the late 1800s and removed all of the grass, fires could no longer move through the forest naturally. Bare soil — which resulted from result over-grazing — allowed the pines to germinate seeds more easily. However, when fires did ignite, the U.S. Forest Service fire policy at the time required any and all fires to be extinguished. This fire policy went unchanged until 1995, allowing millions of young ponderosas and other vegetation to crowd the once-thin forest.

A study conducted by ERI Director Wally Covington found that historically, Arizona’s ponderosa forests contained roughly 25 trees per acre. But now, one acre of forest can contain more than a thousand trees.

“You’ve basically got a big wood pile out there waiting to burn,” said Vosick.

SRP, the water supplier for more than half of Phoenix and nearly all of Tempe, manages eight reservoirs deep within Arizona’s northern region.

“That’s the goal,” said Vosick. “You want fire to do its natural role and to help manage the forests.”

The Four Forest Restoration Initiative, or 4FRI, is a collaborative effort comprised of residents, industry, and the government to restore the Coconino, Kaibab, Apache-Sitgreaves and Tonto national forests through thinning and prescribed burning.

Vosick said that 4FRI hopes to have thinned at least 1 million acres of forested land within 20 years.

However, almost no thinning has taken place in nearly five years since the initiative began.

Seeking a solution

“Forest lands have been managed for the last 20 years through litigation and attorneys, not projects,” said Hallin. Because of these legal barriers, Northern Arizona’s timber industry has all but vanished. So even the lands that have been approved for thinning cannot receive the treatment prescribed because there is no longer any industry to do the work, he said.

“You can make money with big old trees, but we don’t want those trees taken out of the forest,” said Marcus. Private enterprise doesn’t want to invest because no money can be made from the small diameter trees, he said.

The only way to thin the forests in a timely manner is through convincing industry that their investment will not be inhibited by litigation because the federal government can’t do it by itself, Hallin said. “The fact of the matter is, without a successful forest products industry, that entire forest is going to burn.”

SRP, in conjunction with the National Forest Foundation, has created the Northern Arizona Forest Fund, enabling individuals and businesses to invest in restoring the lands that provide them water.

“We don’t need to do more research to know what our problem is; we need to generate public interest in fixing things,” said Marcus.

“You can pay me now, or you can pay me later. But if you pay me now, you pay me a fraction of what you’re going to pay me later and have nowhere near the devastating effects that you’re going to have down the road.”

Oak Creek Canyon

Oak Creek Canyon: A Scenic, Smaller Canyon

Occasionally referred to as the “scenic, smaller cousin” of the Grand Canyon, Oak Creek Canyon, just south of Flagstaff, is known for some of its geological details, including colorful rocks and unique natural formations.

Getting to Oak Creek Canyon isn’t hard, either; in fact, State Rt. 89A goes right into it. Before you go into the actual canyon, though, you might want to take a look at the Oak Creek Canyon Vista. From this place, you can get a nice bird’s-eye view of much of the canyon. Also, if you’re interested in Native American jewelry and crafts, and other items from the locals who set up displays around the area, you can pick up something at this vista.

While it’s definitely possible to explore the majority of the canyon just by driving down State Rt. 89A and taking in the sights, what fun is that? Most of the people who take the time to come to Oak Creek Canyon want to do more than just stay in their car the whole time; they want to go out and hike, or swim, or fish, or do any number of other things to make the most of their visit. If you’re one of these people, there are overlooks, picnic areas, hiking trails and swimming holes scattered throughout the canyon.

Oak Creek Canyon even offers its visitors something to see as they’re leaving. On the way away from the canyon, the keen-eyed observer might notice some of the various natural sculptures on the horizon. Among others, there’s Steam Boat Rock, Courthouse Butte and Bell Rock.

So if you’re around Flagstaff and want a place to go where you can see a neat little piece of the Arizona landscape, go give Oak Creek Canyon a look. And try not to stay in your car the whole time.

For more information about Oak Creek Canyon, visit its page on U.S. Forest Service’s website.

Greenway III, Grand Canyon

Greenway III Trail, Grand Canyon: Progress Continues

The Grand Canyon National Park is getting a new trail. This new trail, which is being referred to as Greenway III, is an eight-mile long trail connecting the park with the gateway town of Tusayan to the south. This trail will pass through both the park itself and the Kaibab National Forest on its way to Tusayan.

The Greenway III trail will consist of both an eight-foot wide compacted soil path for pedestrians and bicyclists. For those exploring the park on horseback, the trail will also include a two- to three-foot-wide gravel path.

Not only will this trail provide people with an easy way to travel between Tusayan and Grand Canyon National Park, it will also extend the well-known Arizona Trail as well. The trail is expected to be completed in fall 2011.

Greenway III will be another piece of the Greenway trail system. This system began as a project which was first launched in 1999 as part of the Millennium Trails Initiative, which recognized and promoted trails to help remember our past and imagine our future.Greenway III, Grand Canyon Trail

The purpose of the Greenway trails is to provide guests of the park with easily accessible, multi-use trails, so that they can have a non-motorized form of travel throughout the park.

The Greenway trail system began as a cooperative effort between the National Park Service, what is now the Grand Canyon Association, and a volunteer group of planners and designers known as the Grand Canyon Collaborative. In addition to Greenway III, the project currently consists of four other trails:

  • The Greenway I trail, completed in 2002, extends the Rim Trail (from Grand Canyon Village to Yavapai Point) through Mather Point out to Pipe Creek Vista.
  • The Greenway II trail, completed in 2003, connects the Grand Canyon Visitor Center to Grand Canyon Village.
  • The Greenway IV trail, completed in 2009, connects Bright Angel Point to the North Kaibab Trailhead.
  • The Greenway V trail, completed in 2010, extends the Rim Trail to the South Kaibab Trailhead.

The Greenway III trail is being funded by a grant received from the Federal Highway Administration’s Public Lands Highways Program. Kaibab National Forest is also helping out with the construction of the trail, and the forest’s supervisor Mike Williams is quite pleased to be working with the project.

The National Park Service is also providing a 100-car parking lot north of Tusayan’s IMAX Theater for the convenience of people who wish to use the new Gateway III trail.

According to Park Superintendent Dave Uberuaga, it is hoped that the new trail will be used alongside the shuttle buses going to Tusayan in the summer months, and that people will soon be able to combine a hike or bicycle ride with a shuttle trip for a truly easy and convenient time at Grand Canyon National Park.

For more information about Grand Canyon National Park, visit nps.gov/grca.