Oct 02, 2014
Decades of Progress – Promoting Forest Treatments and Public Support
Authors: Anne Mottek
No community becomes fire adapted overnight – often it takes decades of concerted effort to foster collaboration and overcome disagreements, public opposition and other obstacles. While promoting forest restoration and community fire resilience in Flagstaff, Arizona, we have learned persistence is the key.
First, a little history. Coinciding with Euro-American settlement, degradation of southwestern forests can be attributed to livestock overgrazing and high-grade logging. Beginning in the early 1900’s, forest conditions were further exacerbated by fire suppression. The continual decline of forest health was hastened by the onset of prolonged drought in the 1990’s.
Flagstaff is located within the largest contiguous ponderosa pine forest ecosystem in the world. As Flagstaff grew, extensive development of neighborhoods spread further out into the forest creating a larger and more complex wildland-urban interface. Beginning in 1996, numerous large fires in and around Flagstaff were perceived by community leaders as a sign of worse things to come, especially if no action was taken. Scientists and practitioners knew current forest conditions were not sustainable and the Flagstaff community needed protection from catastrophic wildfire. At the same time, forest management was in a heated gridlock as conservation groups and public land managers debated how to best protect values at risk from wildfire while sustaining and improving forest resources. Residents treasured the dense green forest and loathed the smoke created by prescribed fires set to improve forest conditions. There was general public consensus that “all trees were good ”and “all fires were bad.” Thus, the foundation was laid for creation of a community-based collaborative, the Greater Flagstaff Forests Partnership (GFPP), to address these critical environmental and social issues.
GFFP’s initial project, Fort Valley Research and Demonstration Project, was one of the first stewardship contracts in the nation and this paved the way for large-scale restoration to begin in the area. However, social license was severely lacking at the time. As DOI’s Secretary Norton was planning a tour to the Fort Valley project, editorials and articles flooded the local newspaper. In an Arizona Daily Sun article (Aug. 6, 2001), executive director for the Southwest Forest Alliance was quoted saying, “The so-called Flagstaff model developed by the Ecological Restoration Institute represents some of the most extreme logging taking place on forests in the Southwest. Neither the model nor the process that created it are solutions to fire issues plaguing the West.”
Over the past 18 years, through GFFP’s efforts, the table has turned and citizens are aware, knowledgeable and supportive of restoration efforts. In 2006, the Social Research Laboratory at Northern Arizona University polled city residents. Results overwhelmingly illustrate residents’ support for forest management projects: 1) 91 percent believe that forest management projects have a positive impact on the health of the forests; 2) 91 percent are supportive of prescribed burning in the area and; 3) 81 percent believe that forest management activities are reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfire.
Since 2004, GFFP has accomplished on-the-ground work through awarded State Forestry cost-share grants; more than $600,000 has been distributed to private landowners to treat more than 1,500 acres. In addition, we developed the “Yellow Belly Ponderosa” (YBP) program which was supported by three grants. The YBP outreach program was as an exciting play developed by middle and high school students for elementary students. The play combined culture, art, and science to convey a lifelong connection to and understanding of sustainable forests and watersheds. Originally a traveling performance delivered throughout elementary schools in northern Arizona, this program was also developed for classroom use with a professionally produced DVD of the performance, pre- and post-lesson plans, and an evaluation. This curriculum was teacher developed to meet State Standards and now can be used across the state. Salt River Project, the largest utility company in the state, funded the curriculum and is presenting the program on their website as well as during teacher workshops they conduct throughout the state.
Lastly, probably the most significant accomplishment to date is the overwhelming support of voters (74 percent) in a 2012 city election for a $10 million bond to treat forests in two critical watersheds, known as the Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project (FWPP).
As a FAC Learning Network hub, GFFP is continuing its work to ensure both forests and communities continue on a fire resilient trajectory. Our top priorities include local FAC and Firewise outreach, and developing a smoke awareness campaign.