'Timber!' may echo in the Grand Canyon

In a precedent-setting move, officials propose cutting park trees tolimit risk of fires, but critics see it leading to logging.

Imagine lazily floating down the Colorado River, the magnificence and beauty of the Grand Canyon towering above, when the cry of a chain saw cuts the serenity.

That could soon happen. Under a federal proposal, timber cutting is being considered in the Grand Canyon National Park.

The idea wouldn't be to allow logging companies to clear-cut for two-by-fours. It would be to thin out overgrown areas to reduce the risk of catastrophic fires - and enhance the renewal of the forest naturally.

Indeed, some scientists argue that tree cutting in select areas of the park is the best way to return pristine woodlands to the way they were before the arrival of man. But environmentalists worry the experiment will eventually lead to commercial logging in one of the nation's most treasured outdoor areas.

Underlying the dispute is the enduring question of how best to manage forests in the American West. While federal officials have tried thinning trees as a fire-suppression technique on some public lands, this would be the first time it would be allowed on this scale in a national park.

"We're not arguing over the problem. It's the solution," says Jeremy Kruger of the National Parks and Conservation Association, an environmental watchdog group. "It's not a conservative approach, and not one we want to take in the crown jewel of our national parks."

Forest restoration

Within its nearly 2,000 square miles, the Grand Canyon contains some of the most prized forests in the country.

Scientists and National Park Service officials say restoration is critical to the future life of these forests. Environmentalists, on the other hand, accuse park officials of fanning the flames of public concern to justify conducting research that could be done elsewhere.

Both sides agree that more than 100 years of livestock grazing and fire suppression have radically altered forest ecosystems in the scorching Southwest. The question is not whether restoration is needed, but how it is accomplished, how much is appropriate, and whether research should be extended into the national parks before the nascent science of forest restoration matures.

"It's going to take decades to understand what we've done with fire suppression," says Sharon Galbreath of the Sierra Club's Grand Canyon chapter. "I don't think all the science is in yet."

The Grand Canyon project was proposed by Wally Covington, a forestry professor at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff and a pioneer in the field of forest restoration. If approved, the project would be conducted jointly by the Park Service and NAU using federal funds.

Dr. Covington's proposal aims to find the best way to restore forests within the national park to historical conditions. Under the plan, two 80-acre sites would be divided into four, 20-acre plots.

Each plot would be treated with one of four experimental conditions: fire only, minimal tree cutting followed by fire, substantial tree cutting followed by fire, and no treatment.

One site is located on the North Rim in a proposed wilderness area near Swamp Ridge. Another is located on the South Rim, near Grandview Point. The third site is just south of the park in the Kaibab National Forest.

Public comment on the proposals will continue through March 25.

Where the prescription calls for timber cutting, small trees will be chipped and burned to release nutrients into the soil. Larger trees are to be removed and donated to local Indian tribes.

Early forests

Grand Canyon senior scientist Robert Winfree explains that low-intensity fires were common in Southwestern forests until around 1870, when the region was settled. Fire was part of the ecosystem. Fire-resistant Ponderosa pines dominated forests, and fire cleaned away dead wood and fallen pine needles, returning trapped nutrients to the soil.

But after 1870, large herds of sheep grazed off much of the grass that carried fire through the forest. In some areas, logging operations removed many of the oldest trees, and a new policy of fire suppression meant more seedlings survived.

Without fire to burn off seedlings, open, grassy forests became choked with dog-hair thickets - dense stands of small, stunted trees that compete with older trees and other plant life. Areas that once had 100 to 250 trees per acre now have as many as 1,000, Dr. Winfree says, and numbers of extremely flammable species, such as white fir, have increased.

Under these conditions, fires that do erupt can become hard to control and unpredictable.

At recent public meetings in Flagstaff, Ariz., and in Kanab, Utah, the proposal was criticized by groups including the Sierra Club, the National Parks and Conservation Association, and the Southwest Forest Alliance.

One of the biggest concerns is the fear that timber cutting would create a precedent that could lead to commercial logging in national parks. Other concerns include the large numbers of trees that would be cut under one plan and the intrusion of logging trucks and heavy machinery into the proposed wilderness area on the North Rim.

Some advocate shelving the project altogether until data from the existing restoration projects can be better analyzed.

Winfree says many of the comments will be incorporated into the final plan. As for precedent, he notes that timber cutting has long been used in national parks for fire management and pest control.

University of Arizona tree-ring specialist Thomas Swetnam says research shows that fires have increased in intensity dramatically over the past three decades and that unprecedented scars created by subsequent erosion have appeared for the first time on the Southwestern landscape.

Dr. Swetnam says it's important to remember the 1964 Wilderness Act lists scientific research as one of the reasons for having wilderness. "People forget that."

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