Too Little, Too Late to Save Flagstaff’s Forests

An article about the Shultz Fire from Northern Arizona University:

NAU experts weigh in on lessons of Schultz Fire

Inside NAU, June 30, 2010 [here]

Expected to be fully contained today, the Schultz Fire [here] that scorched more than 15,000 acres in northeast Flagstaff and captured worldwide attention is human caused in more ways than one, said Northern Arizona University experts.

“This is a human caused fire from two perspectives,” said Daniel Laughlin, a research associate with the university’s Ecological Restoration Institute [here]. “A human campfire was left to burn in an ecosystem that became dense because of 100 years of mismanagement.”

A century of fire suppression has successfully kept fire off the peaks—a landscape dominated by ponderosa pine, which typically burn every two to 45 years. The blaze torched an area not burned since the 1890s in an ecosystem historically subject to frequent, low intensity fires.

There is a glaring misstatement in that.

Historically, the ecosystem was subject to frequent, seasonal anthropogenic fires. i.e. set by the indigenous residents.

I don’t know why ERI is so reticent to admit or even to investigate the historical forest development pathways in what is so clearly an ancient cultural landscape. It’s not like their host institution, Northern Arizona University, is equally deaf, dumb, and blind to the former inhabitants of the San Francisco Peak area (i.e. Flagstaff vicinity). See:

Dating Wupatki Pueblo: Tree Ring Evidence [here]

San Francisco Mt. Ware [here]

The Hopi’s, whose home mesas are east of Flagstaff, consider the San Francisco Peaks (Nuvatukya’ovi) to be sacred mountains. In fact, the Peaks are held sacred by over 13 Native American Nations [here].

The Tribes claim ownership and residency going back many hundreds of generations. There is no reason to doubt their veracity, since archaeological relics are frequent and widespread in the area. The Forest Service has identified the Peaks as a Traditional Cultural Property. It’s common knowledge that people have been living there for millennia.

It would be safe to assume that the native residents practiced landscape burning, since every other indigenous tribe in the Southwest (and elsewhere) burned their homelands regularly. And it is clear to many observers that frequent anthropogenic fire led to open, park-like forests and prairies. Putting those two well-known facts together leads to the inexorable conclusion that anthropogenic fire shaped the vegetation in the pine forests of Flagstaff.

We wait patiently for ERI to catch this clue. But then, we’ve been waiting patiently for that for as long as ERI has existed (10 years).

More from the Inside NAU article:

Pete Fulé, forestry professor and managing director of the institute, said the lack of fire has dramatically altered the composition and structure of the forest, while management of the area had grown complex because of high public visibility and community connection to the San Francisco Peaks.

His research has found that forests on the peaks are denser, with more fire-intolerant species and less structural diversity that allows the surface fires, which naturally occur in the ecosystem, to become full blown wildfires.

Tree density alone increased from 60 to 73 trees per acre to 928 to 1,700 trees per acre, marking a comparison between the forest structure before and after fire suppression relevant to multiple aspects of forest ecosystem.

Here’s the thing: it wasn’t “fire suppression” per se that altered the San Francisco Peaks forests, so much as suppression (via disease, warfare, ethnic cleansing) of the indigenous residents and their traditional ecological practices.

Dr. Peter Fulé ought to be aware of that. I can hardly imagine that he is not. But for some reason ERI is mum on anthropogenic fire. They have a wonderful library [here], but they have zero articles with the word “anthropogenic” in the title. They have zero articles with the phrase “anthropogenic fire” in the text. “Anthropology” is not one of their library subjects.

On the other hand, they have at least 25 articles with the phrase “natural fire regime” in the text. For instance, in Thomas A. Heinlein, Margaret M. Moore, Peter Z. Fulé, and W.Wallace Covington. 2005. Fire history and stand structure of two ponderosa pine–mixed conifer sites: San Francisco Peaks, Arizona, USA. International Journal of Wildland Fire, 2005, 14, 307–320 the authors state:

In the absence of a natural fire regime, many mixed conifer forests have developed into dense, structurally homogeneous ecosystems.

Now, to me that is an obviously wrong statement I believe the researchers at ERI are smart enough to know the truth, but for unknown reasons are in deep denial of the historical human influences that dominated the anthropogenic fire regimes of the forests they study. Why? I’d like an answer. I’m tired of the denial.

It’s not like any ERI researcher has ever addressed the issue, or studied it, or came to any evidence-based (empirical) conclusion that the tribes who lived there did not employ anthropogenic fire. And lacking any effort to research the question, the claim that a “natural fire regime” dominated once upon a time is completely unfounded, scientifically.

I hereby challenge Dr. Peter Fulé to a debate on the topic: Be It Resolved, anthropogenic fire regimes were dominant historically in the sky-island pine forests vs. natural fire regimes were dominant.

You can pick the time and place, Pete. I’ll be there. It shouldn’t be much of a challenge for you. You are, after all, the managing director of a scientific institute, and I am just an… executive director of a scientific institute! A fair debate!!!! I’ll wear a tie. We can sell tickets and make some dough for each of our respective institutes. Give me a call.

Back to the Inside NAU article:

Tree density alone increased from 60 to 73 trees per acre to 928 to 1,700 trees per acre, marking a comparison between the forest structure before and after fire suppression relevant to multiple aspects of forest ecosystem.

Typical management strategies such as thinning and prescribed burning were avoided due to logistical challenges, environmental groups, administrative constraints, time and money.

The result: The forest developed into an unnatural ecosystem ripe for a landscape-size wildfire, and a careless camper provided the spark.

Had the area been treated, Laughlin said, “We would have seen a much smaller, much mellower fire.” …

Laughlin said the general feeling is that about 60 percent of the burned area will have some living trees and see positive results. …

However, the 40 percent where the fire raged has a huge risk of soil erosion and small chance for regeneration as the seed source—large trees—has been destroyed. …

We are in agreement that pre-treating with restoration forestry techniques would have saved Flagstaff’s forests from catastrophic destruction. Had they been treated, the current residents would not have been so much at risk, and the fire would have been much cheaper to control, too.

My “general feeling,” however, is that trees in the 60 percent less-than-total-mortality areas were severely stressed and are now prone to bark beetle attack. In two years many of the trees that are still green today will be dead.

It takes full-forest restoration to re-institute fire resiliency and historical forest development pathways. Treating a patch here and there will not yield the desired results.

For 15,000 acres of the Schultz Burn, the debate is now moot. We can only observe the post-fire effects, and perhaps do some emergency fire recovery actions to try to control erosion. The heritage forest, with old-growth relic trees, is no more. And it will not be coming back — not until people begin to understand how it developed in the first place.



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