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Experts say decades of managing tribal forest helped stop Wallow Fire at reservation

Published: Monday, December 12, 2011

Updated: Thursday, January 12, 2012 17:01

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Brandon Quester • CNS

Butch Gregg, a forester technician with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, uses a drip torch filled with a mixture of gasoline and kerosene to light wood piles in a season-ending forest-treatment near the tribal community of McNary.

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Brandon Quester • CNS

Orlando Carroll, left, timber sales forester, and Jonathan Brooks, tribal forest manager, with the White Mountain Apache Tribe talk about the impact to tribal land from the 2011 Wallow Fire while walking near the boundary to tribal land and the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests.

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Brandon Quester • CNS

Jim Pitts, a forest health and growth expert with Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests, explains growth patterns in a tree that was cut in a forest-thinnning treatment.

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Brandon Quester • CNS

Jim Zornes, deputy forest supervisor with Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests, points to a burn progression map of the Wallow Fire.

WHITERIVER – Blackened, rusted and bent, a barbed wire fence snakes along the boundary of the Fort Apache Indian Reservation and the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests in eastern Arizona's White Mountains.

To the east, a sea of black rolls with the land as trees resemble burnt matchsticks. The national forest stand is dense with young trees. Most won't survive.

To the west, on tribal land, the trees are spread farther apart, with blackened dirt hidden by growth of wild strawberries and forest grasses. The trees on this side of the fence, for the most part, will live.

It was along this line that fire ecologists and forest managers say the westward expansion of the Wallow Fire, the largest in Arizona's history, slowed and eventually stopped.

Touring the area, Jonathan Brooks, tribal forest manager for the White Mountain Apache Tribe, said forest-management strategies unhindered by environmental litigation and drawn-out federal government processes helped check the wildfire here.

For decades, the tribe has cleared young trees, logged larger trees and burned underbrush to replicate the natural burn-and-growth cycle of the Ponderosa pine forest. Brooks said that made it easy for firefighters to create a backfire here to deprive the approaching Wallow Fire of fuel.

"Had this area not been thinned, logged, prescribe-burned, we wouldn't have been able to do a burnout operation here – so the fire would've been able to come through here unchecked," he said.

A new federal government report that analyzed the Wallow Fire's impact on tribal lands supports Brooks' assessment. In addition, the Wallow Fire Fuels Treatment Effectiveness Report, prepared by agencies including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Indian Affairs, notes that the Wallow Fire killed fewer trees on the Fort Apache and San Carlos Apache reservations because it burned less intensely there.

The Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests took the brunt of the Wallow Fire, which burned a total of 538,049 acres across two states, consuming 32 homes and four commercial properties and leaving 36 outbuildings in ashes, according to the Incident Information System, an inter-agency website.

Wally Covington, director of Northern Arizona University's Ecological Restoration Institute, said tribes can conduct forest treatments faster and cheaper because the stakeholders are limited to tribal members.

For national forests, he said, decisions are subject to extensive federal processes in which more people are involved and environmental assessments are more costly. There are lessons to be learned from neighboring tribal lands on how to better manage national forests, such as increasing cost-effectiveness by assessing larger tracts of land for treatment, Covington said.

"How can we do this faster and more efficiently?" he said. "Tribal forestry throughout the West has done some very innovative techniques."

Managing a forest

At times, Jere Classay is hidden from view as plumes of smoke rise from wood piles stacked along a forest access road on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation.

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