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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.

He is a lead forestry technician with firefighters conducting season-ending fire treatments near McNary to clear mounds of logs left from a forest-thinning treatment around the tribal community.

They are with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the federal agency that develops and runs the reservation's fire-management plan in cooperation with tribal forestry officials.

The treatment is just one example of forest-management practices that balance logging by private companies, prescribed burning and a policy of removing dense stands of trees throughout the reservation. The effect: large-scale forest thinning across tribal lands.

"When you work on treated land with logging or thinning or prescribed fire – whatever you use to treat that land, then it's a lot easier to control the wildfire," Classay said. "We maintain our forests so if (wildfire) does come onto our reservation then we have a better chance of controlling and containing it compared to their side."

More than 500,000 of the 1.6 million acres of forest within Fort Apache is dedicated to managing trees for sale.

This process, according to Orlando Carroll, a Fort Apache timber sales forester with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, is a combination of forest treatments that start with preparing an area for logging by private companies. This includes selecting trees that will not only provide viable logs but also selecting them in such a way that shapes the forest to a desired state.

As private logging companies harvest the selected trees, they thin the forest. After that, crews conduct additional thinning such as removing small trees in dense stands to allow intentional fires to be set in the area roughly one year later, mimicking historic slow-moving fires that burn through Ponderosa pine forests, Carroll said.

A major part of the tribe's strategy is prescribed fires. Since the early 1950s, the tribe has conducted large-scale burns in coordination with the Bureau of Indian Affairs on tens of thousands of acres each year.

Robert Lacapa, Fort Apache's forest manager for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, said the agency and tribe need to treat up to 70,000 acres per year to maintain the nearly 2 million acres of forest.

With a strategy that manages trees on thousands of acres annually by using forest-thinning, timber-harvesting and prescribed-burning, the tribe's approach has created healthy forest conditions that are easier to manage during wildfires, Lacapa said.

"The forests for the White Mountain Apache Tribe, they're very important for livelihood, for economics, cultural aspects, recreation," Brooks said. "There's so many benefits that the land and that the forests provide for the tribe, and it's very important for us to actively manage it to keep the forest healthy so that everything kind of maintains its balance."

But managing the forest extends beyond its benefits to the tribe. Leon Ben Jr., regional fire management officer for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, said this process also protects against devastating wildfires.

From a regional perspective, Ben said the goal of the treatments is "taking away the possibility, or minimizing the possibility, of catastrophic wildland fires to protect our communities. And also at the same time managing our fuels, managing our forests, for future generations."

The report

The Wallow Fire did encroach into Fort Apache's tribal land, burning about 13,000 acres along the eastern boundary despite a prevailing wind from the west. It also reached the neighboring San Carlos Apache Tribe lands, burning another 9,162 acres.

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