Watershed Protection Update

Stacked logs near Rio de Flag mark the area where forest is being cleared by the Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project, Oct. 28.

The city of Flagstaff and Coconino National Forest granted two contracts to two of the state companies, allowing them to cut down trees around Dry Lake Hills. This contract initiates the second phase of the Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project (FWPP).

George Jozens, the deputy public affairs officer for the Coconino National Forest, said in 2012, Flagstaff voters approved a $10 million dollar bond to get the project going.

“In addition to the bond, there’s been several million dollars coming in from the United States Forest Service and private contributions,” said Jozens.

He added that the primary goal of the FWPP is to reduce the risk of intense wildfires as trees within the forest have grown extremely dense. As a secondary consequence of the fires, there are significantly less trees and foliage to protect Flagstaff neighborhoods and urban parts of the city from flooding.

To prevent substantial damage from fires and floods, controlled and strategic logging is implemented.

Jozens pointed to the Schultz fire in 2010 as an example. It demonstrated the potential for severe downstream impacts even when residential areas are spared from the fire itself.

Following the Schultz fire, repeated flooding occurred in unincorporated neighborhoods just outside of city limits, causing tens of millions of dollars in damage to infrastructure and private property.

According to Matthew Millar, the FWPP operations specialist, Smith Forest Services Inc. from Albany, Oregon and Markit! Forestry Management from Colorado Springs, Colorado were hired to execute the second phase.

Approximately 900 acres of land were divided up between the two companies, involving $3.6 million siphoned from the city bond, $1.8 million coming from the Forest Service, totaling in a cost of $5.4 million. Millar stated that there were many variables and qualities that are considered when hiring both companies.

“We go through the criteria set by the Forest Service designed to evaluate contractors. We then find which contractor would provide the best value to the forest and to the project. Next, we look at the cost to hire, what their work plan is, and if it aligns with the timeline we want,” said Millar.

Millar also added the FWPP includes land managed by the city, state, federal, and tribal land owned by the Navajo nation.

Phase 1 of the project was executed around the base of Mount Elden, and is already halfway completed. Phase 2 is focused on the steep slopes of Mount Elden, and logging is projected to begin later this fall or winter. Millar explained that there are many challenges and obstacles they must overcome in this phase.

“Elden has complex steep terrain, it’s not the traditional level ground logging which is more common around here. There’s a Mexican spotted owl population up there, which is a threatened species and has protection by the federal government, so there’s lots of rules we have to follow,” said Millar.

Phase 3 is located by Mormon Mountain, and is the watershed area of Lake Mary which is where Flagstaff gets up to 50 percent of its drinking water supply. They plan on starting this portion of the project once the first two phases are done. Millar clarified that there is not a strict timetable on completing these phases.

“We have to be able to react to challenges as they arise, and that may mean altering contracts, dropping acres in some places, or some costs in different areas may fluctuate. We have a general timeframe, but we have to take it year by year,” Millar said.

All of this work has been deemed necessary by policy makers and researchers alike. The problem of clustered trees has grown into a safety hazard, and is the result of decades of human intervention in the local ecosystem. Millar said both the NAU School of Forestry and the Ecological Restoration Institute have studied the problem for decades.

They have been examining the historic structure and condition of the forest — how many trees per acre there were before settlement of the west. Back then, there were 20 to 50 trees per acre, and fire played a natural and frequent role in the ecosystem. Low severity fires didn’t climb the tree canopies and didn’t scorch large areas of land, allowing ponderosa pine trees to grow larger and be more spread out.

However, factors such as suppressing fires, logging, and grazing altered the ecology and structure of the forest. The fire-resistant trees were cut down, and blazes were stopped that would have burned off countless seedlings. Today, there are approximately 300 to 500 trees per acre, and over 1000 trees per acre in some areas.

“We’re trying to return the forest to historical levels and receive more benefits from wildfires,” Millar said.