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Leading the West in Forest Restoration, Woody Debris Solutions, Job Creation 

Wally Covington picks his way through a tightly wooded section of forest in Fort Tuthill south of Flagstaff. At 6 feet 7 inches tall, the forest ecologist ducks and squeezes through thickets of skinny, but not young, ponderosa pine trees. And even though it is a typical sunny Northern Arizona day, the space he is navigating is heavily shadowed – dark even – and chilly. 

“This little patch has about 350 to 400 trees per acre, which was characteristic of this whole area before we initiated the treatments,” said the executive director of the Ecological Restoration Institute and Northern Arizona University Regents’ Professor of Forestry.  

The patch is what he calls “a control area,” an untreated part of the site that foresters can compare with restored acres to understand the success of their work in meeting forest health objectives. 

The treatments in the Fort Tuthill Restoration Project are strategic and healing, he says. Foresters have removed about 70 to 80 percent of the trees across 150 acres, thinning to about 80 trees per acre. “We’re keeping all of the old growth trees and removing only those trees that pose a threat, not only a threat to the Flagstaff community from fire, but also to wildlife habitat, biodiversity and natural ecological processes like the recycling of nutrients.”  

The Fort Tuthill Restoration Project is one of many forest treatment efforts around Flagstaff, more than Covington dreamed could ever happen when he first arrived in town in the 1970s and began diagnosing what he calls a sickly, crowded, out-of-balance forest. The unhealthy condition, he explains, is the result of a well-intentioned, but ill-conceived human-caused campaign to keep fire from playing its natural role in the ponderosa pine forest. 

The current ongoing plan is to restore a couple of million acres around Flagstaff during the next few decades with a number of projects on National Forests. 

“If a fire were to start down here with a good 30 or 40 mile-an-hour wind blowing it before treatment, that could have blown right into the city of Flagstaff. With this as a restoration landscape-scale fuel buffer, a fire that hits this is going to drop down out of the canopies. There’s no way this area is going to now support a crown fire, and it gives firefighters a way to safely stop the fire before it hits the city.” 

Since the 1990s, efforts like the Greater Flagstaff Forest Partnership (GFFP), the Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI) and the Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project (FWPP) have earned Flagstaff a reputation as a community taking action to protect itself from the now-common firestorms of the West, while recognizing ecological benefits to forests that can survive, even thrive, in the presence of wildfire. 

“The citizens of Flagstaff have been really strongly connected to the forest since settlement – since the 1880s – through ranching and logging operations. Now, it’s mostly a conservation- oriented community. Most people in Flagstaff go out and recreate in the woods, they learn about what’s going on in the forest, and are very well educated about this. So, unlike a lot of other forested communities in the western United States, most of the citizens in Flagstaff can engage knowledgably about forest health, forest restoration or fire problems. It does set Flagstaff on a trajectory to be a West-wide leader for ecological restoration and sustainable forestry.” 

Along with a fully functioning forested landscape, Covington promotes the need for sustainable jobs and economic development in Northern Arizona. “There’s a lot of interest in developing innovative ways to use these young trees and biomass resulting from thinning operations, what we call post-settlement trees, and use them to create jobs and economic development opportunities. These jobs might be small-wood utilization jobs, like you’d find in a sawmill operation.” 

Products that can be made from small-diameter trees and branches include glulam, glued laminated timber made from small pieces of wood to create strong, structural planks; oriented strand board, “like plywood on steroids,” described Covington; and electricity, which includes using biomass like the tops of trees that are not typically merchantable, to fire up power plants.  

“Right now, there’s a lot of excitement about developing what we call an integrated wood and biomass utilization campus here in Flagstaff,” he said.  

Helping to advance such efforts is Han-Sup Han, the ERI’s director of forest operations and biomass utilization, who accepted the new position at NAU earlier this year. 

“In my experience working with forest ecologists, silviculturists and policymakers, the challenge to improving forest health and achieving restoration goals is finding the right operational tools and setting up optimal operational logistics to get the work done that is environmentally acceptable and financially reasonable,” said Han. “Lack of market and utilization of biomass resulting from those treatments have been identified as key barriers. I’d like to bring my experience to address those challenges.” 

Meanwhile, NAU President Rita Cheng is optimistic about the ERI’s continued influence on forest research and health. “ERI and NAU have been at the forefront of forest health, a critical issue in the Southwest, in Arizona and in the greater Flagstaff region. We anticipate Dr. Han will enhance the effectiveness of our program as he uses his knowledge and experience to advance important restoration initiatives.”  

The possibilities include the development of a forest products business cluster having various wood and biomass processing facilities such as a biomass-to-electricity conversion facility, an oriented strand board plant and a sawmill that are co-located at Camp Navajo, the military site in Bellemont, 10 miles west of Flagstaff.  

Another element of ERI’s efforts would be the university working with the U.S. Department of Defense to develop veteran-training programs, says Covington, both for forest operations out in the woods and at forest product processing facilities. 

“One of the things we often say at the university is we want to help restore the ecological and economic integrity of the West,” explained Covington. “And certainly at this point, I think it’s safe to say that all of the local forest organizations, including the university, are striving for forest health, the prevention of unnaturally intense wildfires and the creation of jobs. The Flagstaff community is leading the charge on this West-wide.” FBN 


By Bonnie Stevens, FBN 


Photo caption: Ecological Restoration Institute at NAU Executive Director Wally Covington, Ph.D., points out fire scars and explains how ponderosa pine trees evolved with fire on a field trip to the G.A. Pearson Natural Area of the Fort Valley Experimental Forest, the nation’s oldest forest research station just north of Flagstaff. 

Photo by Katelyn Cordasco 


Photo caption: Covington says climate change is exacerbating the forest health crisis of the West. “Where we used to have a front come through with maybe 20 or 30 mile-an-hour winds associated with it, now we’re seeing 50 and 60 mile-an-hour winds. And there’s an exponential relationship between wind speed and fire severity.” 

Photo by Bonnie Stevens 


PULLOUT QUOTE: “One of the things we often say at the university is we want to help restore the ecological and economic integrity of the West.Wally Covington 




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