W. Wallace Covington, a professor of forest ecology at Northern Arizona University, likes to invoke the memory of Aldo Leopold, the naturalist and philosopher who lectured on the importance of undisturbed wilderness.
Of course, there are no more undisturbed wildernesses, and after more than a century of fire suppression, grazing, logging--forest gardening, essentially--even those areas officially designated as "wilderness" are choking on their own prodigious growth, and so full of firewood that they could be incinerated with the next lightning bolt or careless campfire.
Covington's work branches out from his discovery that over the last 100 years, the ponderosa pine forests around Flagstaff have increased in density from around 23 trees per acre to more than 851 trees per acre. And at the same time, the grasses on the forest floor have dropped from more than 1,000 tons per acre to about 112 tons per acre. Studies on the Kaibab Plateau show a similar, if less drastic, change, as well.
Like some vaccination that uses a mild dose of disease to render a body immune, Covington wants to garden the wilderness back to some approximation of nature.
And though it terrifies them to admit it, both the logging industry and the environmentalists, who are by principle at loggerheads on everything, agree with Covington--if for different reasons.
Wally Covington is a tree-size man--six-foot-five--with thick auburn sideburns, and 1970s-style wire-rimmed glasses. On a recent morning, he lumbers through his own experimental forest, just off Highway 180 north of Flagstaff, on the Forest Service's Fort Valley Experiment Station.
Like his idol, Aldo Leopold, who taught right here in Fort Valley, Wally Covington came to Flagstaff with a Ph.D. in forestry from Yale. Since arriving in 1976, Covington has distinguished himself in the academic community; since 1984, he has cultivated more than $2 million in academic grants. This plot was worth $300,000 from the National Science Foundation. And Covington is overseeing another forthcoming $2.8 million in federal funds for a similar, but larger, restoration project on the Arizona Strip west of the Grand Canyon.
Ironically, the Fort Valley Station was set aside in 1906 by Gifford Pinchot, the father of the modern Forest Service, to figure out ways to make the ponderosa pine forests around Flagstaff more productive.
When settlers first arrived in the area in the late 1800s, they found parklike forests with big, yellow-barked pines scattered in clumps across grassy meadows.
The fledgling Forest Service saw those wide-open glades as understocked tree farms and wanted to figure out ways to grow enough trees to make timbering productive and profitable. Little did they know the process had already been set in motion.
The logic of the era said that if you eliminated all predators, there would be plenty of game to be had by humans. And if you eliminated fire from the landscape, there would be more trees to cut.
Before the arrival of European Americans, fires had flashed through the forest nearly every other year, burning off the brushy undergrowth and excess pine seedlings. But by 1876, with the Native Americans newly sequestered on reservations and the railroad chugging through the territory, Arizona settlers filled the landscape with sheep and then cattle, which quickly chewed off the grass, which eliminated the fuel for the frequent fires. And in the absence of fire, the forest grew like never before.
The 1906 Forest Service experiment became a moot point; the tree farm grew by itself. As a reminder, Wally Covington's 1995 study areas are bordered by dog-hair thickets, ponderosa pines packed so tightly that in 85 years they have not managed to grow thicker than four inches in diameter.
If such a forest catches fire, the flames don't just flash along the ground, leaving the big trees untouched as in the prehistoric forest. Instead, the undergrowth and debris serve as kindling and the fires climb up into the crowns of the trees, killing them all. A crown fire can be far more devastating than a clearcut and can set off a succession of ecological events that could take 1,000 years to heal.
Covington wants to cut the forest back to where it was 100 years ago, with the hope that if he does there will still be something left 100 years from now.
One year ago, Covington and volunteer helpers removed most of the smaller, postsettlement pines from an eight-acre plot in Fort Valley. Whereas logging operations leave piles of leaves and branches--called "slash"--on the ground, Covington hauled it away, then raked the combustible pine needles and forest litter, or "duff," from beneath the trees. He burned off the rest with controlled fire, then mowed 14 acres of nearby Hart Prairie, hauled the grass and wildflower clippings up to Fort Valley and spread it over the ground, with the hope that soil will be seeded. Covington plans to set more fires to burn off the undergrowth and try to restore the original fire regime.
"The answers for the questions we're asking here are 40 years away," Covington says. And, indeed, with the stumps and the bare earth beneath the remaining big trees, the study area is as bruised and unattractive as a day-old nose job.
"If we want to leave a legacy of healthy ecosystems, the restoration process . . . is not going to be very pretty for, let's say, five years," he admits.
But already the remaining old-growth trees are beginning to show increased vigor, measured in greater resin flow, since they no longer compete for nutrients with too many young trees.
Covington has already embarked on another such restoration experiment, which covers 8,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management land around Mount Trumbull in the Arizona Strip, for which the Interior department will cough up $2.8 million.
Scientists usually care little for politics.
"If we just publish science and put it on bookshelves, then what the hell are we alive for?" Covington says. And, certainly, Covington's work has been dragged into the timber tantrums thrown by environmentalists and Wise Use guys. Both extremes tend toward oversimplification.
On the one hand, Covington has seen demonstrators holding up signs that say "No chain-saw medicine," signaling the misguided notion that if we only walk away from the forest, Mother Nature will tidy it up.
"That's a lot of wishful thinking," says Covington. "Mother Nature is not doing bark beetle outbreaks and crown fires. We're doing that."
But the other extreme can be just as myopic. "Silviculturists say there's nothing you can do with fire that I can't do with a chain saw," Covington says. "And prescribed-fire folks say we don't need any tree cutting; we know enough about fire that we can apply the science of prescribed burning and do it."
He is particularly galled by the timber company foresters who claim that the big old yellow pines are decrepit and dying and need to be euthanized to keep the forest young and renewed.
"That's a lot of crap," he growls. "There's a tree across the street from here that dates to the 1300s. It was growing like gangbusters until about 1950, when these postsettlement trees started closing in on it."
And in the Arizona Strip, he claims, there are trees nearly 1,200 years old.
Covington's research has gotten around. When timber executives and antienvironmental politicians snort that there are more trees now than ever, they are paraphrasing Covington.
"This is science," says Darlene Slusher, assistant to the chairman of Kaibab Industries and president of the ACCORD chapter of People for the West. "No one influenced his survey. There is no industry bias; it was totally done without our knowledge."
And though Slusher claims that her company would not dispute if more science told it not to cut the old-growth trees, the "more trees than ever" statement usually overlooks that most of those new trees are small in diameter, while the timber business wants the big old trees that Covington is trying to save.
"What I find amusing is that politicians and a lot of industry folks seem to want to take his fire-suppression work and use it to justify salvage logging," says Sharon Galbreath of the Sierra Club. "They don't want to listen to the more important part of his work: Don't log any more yellow pines, guys.
"What makes me nervous about Wally's work," she continues, "is that I think it's going to be used once again to apply some dogmatic management approach across the landscape, and that's not right. And I know he doesn't agree with that, either. He's worried about what the agencies will do with his work."
So concerned was Covington, in fact, that in 1993 he wrote an open letter cautioning that his study areas were just that--study areas--and that there was danger in extrapolating to the forest at large.
Kieran Suckling of the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity, a group toward the more stridently green end of the environmental spectrum, echoes the concern.
"His studies are getting picked up and abused by the Forest Service and the industry to say that every area looks like this," Suckling says. Suckling's group and the Southwest Forest Alliance, a coalition of enviros, also advocate thinning of pine forests and raking of duff away from the trunks of the big trees so that there will be less "kindling" for crown fires.
"But every time the Forest Service tells us they're thinning small trees, the big ones come down," Suckling complains. Then, as an afterthought, he adds, "If you think the Forest Service is going to abuse your data, imagine what Jon Kyl and J.D. Hayworth are going to do with it."
Covington detests simplification, especially the current tendency of the land management agencies to manage for one species at a time, whether spotted owls or old-growth ponderosa pine. No one part of the forest can truly represent its totality, because the threat to forest ecology comes from so many directions.
He says those threats are not limited to cutting old-growth trees and putting out fires. "It's killing predators, spraying with herbicides, and introduction of domestic livestock, all those practices that could be described as an agricultural approach to wildland utilization."
Furthermore, he reminds us how little we really know about healthy ponderosa pine forests because most, if not all, studies have been done in degraded and unhealthy forests, the only kind we have.
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Suckling thinks that Covington is not forceful enough in his dealings with politicians and industry. Covington knows that he needs both in his forest restoration plans. The thinning he believes is needed would likely be done by timber companies, if they choose to shift their operations from lumber from large-diameter trees to pulp or particle-board logging of smaller trees.
Jim Matson, a Kanab, Utah-based consultant who spent 30 years as a forester for Kaibab Industries, says, "There are entities out there right now that would put in particle-board plants." But they are Eastern firms with no vested environmental interest in the region. What stands in the way of locally based entrepreneurs is that, as Matson says, "It takes 50 million bucks!"
In a businessman's eye, would it be worth the monumental task of hauling away slash and raking the duff and replanting? Is that too much work to expect? The question makes Covington testy.
"You do what you can do on your watch," he says. "What we don't want is our great-grandchildren looking back and saying, 'Knowing what you knew then, how could you not at least try to do something?'