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NAU’s Legacy Leads Toward Forest Fire Prevention

Arizona’s forests are a state treasure, and they contribute to our quality of life in the high country. Every year during wildfire season, though, that treasure is under threat – a fact that we were reminded of this summer. We all agree on the need to keep our forests healthy, but attempts to prevent forest fires can sometimes lead to differing viewpoints on how to achieve that goal.

That is why Northern Arizona University’s long-standing legacy of forest health research and leadership is critical to our state and its forests. Through our collaboration with many diverse stakeholders, we lead the effort to better understand how to protect our forests from major disturbances like catastrophic wildfire and insect infestations.

For more than 40 years, NAU Professor Dr. Wally Covington and the Ecological Restoration Institute (ERI) have served as a bridge between forest science and action, turning research into practice. The Institute tackles important ecological issues like the protection of old-growth trees, and economic issues like the role of private industry in the forests. This yields research that informs land management practices, reduces the spread of fires that threaten homes and businesses, and benefits everyone that cares about our forests.

NAU forest science research examines the economic and social impacts of wildfire and restoration. Economists with NAU’s W.A. Franke College of Business, along with ecologists from ERI, have conducted full-cost accounting analyses on devastating fires like the 2010 Schultz Fire. But NAU’s efforts extend far beyond our campus boundaries, and far beyond Flagstaff. We collaborate with industry leaders across the state on innovative approaches to reduce the threat of wildfires to communities and protect the state’s valuable natural resources. We use best available science to help inform practitioners and policymakers in their restoration efforts, and we partner with local and regional government leaders through the Four Forest Restoration Initiative (also known as 4FRI), a coalition that has taken significant steps forward in landscape-scale restoration.

NAU’s forest research is not abstract. It answers specific and applicable questions, like what restoration treatments best prevent catastrophic fire, or how to facilitate the removal of biomass that is a byproduct of restoration. We are focused on fire history and forest reconstruction in areas where ponderosa pine is transitioning to either shrub or lower elevation vegetation types – a project that will help inform decisions on how to best restore these ecosystems and lessen the fire risk to Prescott-area communities.

Our research links us to numerous federal agencies and allows us to help identify best practices – a role that is invaluable in communities where private land intersects with land managed by federal, state, military or tribal entities.

Our work educates and informs citizens on how they can help prevent fires, and it continues to open new doors to partnerships and discussions that have a statewide impact.

Future Arizonans will look back on these efforts as a significant investment in the sustainability of our forest resources and the protection of our communities.

Want to be involved in restoration efforts? There are several ways to do so. The 4FRI Stakeholder Group convenes monthly in open meetings, and more information is available at 4fri.org. To help your friends and family better understand the benefits of making their homes safer from wildfire, visit wildlandfire.az.gov. And to learn more about NAU’s research and outreach, visit nau.edu/ERI. FBN

By Rita Cheng

Rita Cheng is the president of Northern Arizona University.

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