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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.

"One of the lessons learned is that forest restoration treatments are effective … the second lesson is that we haven't done enough acres – we just need to do more," said James Youtz, a regional forest health and growth expert with the U.S. Forest Service who said he only spoke from his experience and not the official perspective of the Forest Service.

Youtz, a former Bureau of Indian Affairs employee, said he doesn't think examining the Wallow Fire is a good way to compare national forest and tribal land-management strategies because the wildfire moved mostly north and east along the reservation's flank. But he did say that differences between forests on each side of the boundary were apparent.

"We have closed canopies with even aged stands that basically burn with crown fire behavior," Youtz said. "The tribe is able to implement a lot of treatments at a faster pace than we've been able to."

The Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests historically had tree densities between 20 and 60 trees per acre; now it averages more than 400 trees per acre, according to 2010 information from the National Database of State and Local Wildfire Hazard Mitigation Programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The highest rate of tree death from intense burning at high temperatures during the Wallow Fire occurred in dense tree stands, according to Covington, the NAU forest ecology expert.

He said the current situation in the Apache-Sitgreaves and other western forests results from decades of aggressively suppressing wildfires, fueling overcrowding, disease and dry conditions that result in catastrophic crown fires.

"These are very large landscape-management problems," Covington said. "We're kind of sitting ducks, in a way, in a fuel matrix."

A larger scale

Jim Pitts, a forest health and growth expert with Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests, said there is general agreement that forests need to be managed at a larger scale. As for how to do that, he said forest managers and the public should look to what is happening on tribal lands.

"Some of our publics are going to have to look at what the tribe operations are and see how they do things," Pitts said. "We've got to work closer along the boundary. What they do on their side we need to try to do on our side, and the timing of those projects needs to coincide so we get the maximum benefit out of that."

Youtz, with the regional office of the Forest Service, said conducting treatments like logging and increased prescribed burning has to go through a lengthy process of environmental assessments and public input on national forests. He said this process is faster on tribal lands because the people involved with the assessment are limited to the tribal council and Bureau of Indian Affairs.

"The stakeholders that comment on, object to and appeal to projects are different than they are on the national forests," Youtz said.

Robert Lacapa, Bureau of Indian Affairs forest manager for Fort Apache, said the public has driven the current state of forest lands in the West, adding that this also has contributed to a decline in logging industry infrastructure like sawmills in national forests.

"The industry was really driven by the product and the product was really driven by the management and the management was really driven by the people," Lacapa said. "It starts with what the public wants to see. I think the public sort of drove the state of the Forest Service at this point."

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