Eagar South Forestry

©Mary Stuever, April 2009


The Forester’s Log is a monthly column published in newspapers and magazines primarily in the American west. Stuever is a forester in the American Southwest. She can be reached at sse@nmia.com. Photos courtesy of Craig Wilcox.


                “Hey Jim,” the speaker is one of fifty foresters on the field tour south of Eagar, Arizona sponsored by the Southwest Society of American Foresters. “You keep talking about quality leave trees, and I am wondering if the tree behind you is a good example.”

                Jim Pitts is showing the group several recent forest treatments in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. Jim’s back has been to tree in question, a ponderosa pine that has branched into three main stems, which upon scanning to the top has additional branching in each of the major trunks. The tree clearly has a genetic tendency for forking. In the days when timber production was the primary concern, this tree would have been the first one cut. The idea then would have been to remove the tree to prevent passing the genetic forking tendency on to future forests.

                A forest silviculturist with extensive training in whole ecosystem functions, Jim glances over his shoulder and grins. “Yep, to a wildlife biologist, that is a perfect leave tree.” He points out that V-shaped stems provide wonderful anchors for nest platforms for both squirrel and raptor nests.

The majority of the scattered trees have beautiful single-stem form, yet they represent diverse sizes and age classes. This stand of trees was cut using a “restoration” approach originally developed at Northern Arizona University’s Ecological Restoration Institute. With the “Eagar” modification, timber markers left one tree in the woods within 60 feet from each piece of evidence they could find that a tree was there 130 years ago. Healthy large, yellow-belly pines were automatically selected to stay in the forest. Younger trees were selected to replace trees that had been growing at the time of “European settlement” and had left some evidence such as a stump hole, a stump, a standing dead tree, or a fallen log. The selected leave trees represent a balance of ages, sizes, and appropriate species for the site.

Further down the mountain the group visits an area cut with a different design. Following guidelines developed to encourage the diverse prey base of the Northern Goshawk, this stand has clumps and groups of various ages of ponderosa pine interspaced with openings. Although Jim’s marking crews consider many variables as they vary the spacing and selection of trees, the expense of preparing the area is similar to more traditional projects.

These forest stands were treated using the White Mountain Stewardship Contract. The contract is a ten-year agreement between the U.S. Forest Service and Future Forests, LLC, comprised of local logging and wood processing companies. The contract allows the Forest Service to treat between 5,000 and 25,000 acres each year depending on need and budgets. When the value of the material harvested exceeds the costs of removing the material from the woods, the Forest Service is paid; when the costs exceed the value, the company is paid. Due to present conditions in the woods, where a century of fire exclusion has led to forests of dense, small trees, the harvest costs generally exceed the value. Still, the off-set of the wood value keeps the treatment costs well below other restoration options.

The work is planned and carried out with a landscape scale approach. Down the road, White Mountain Apache crews are thinning another stand of small trees on Forest Service lands. Closer to town, a juniper thinning project has been completed by the Arizona Game and Fish Department on state lands. As a result of all these projects, homes in the woodlands around Eagar are at less risk of loss from large, catastrophic wildfire. Meanwhile, Eagar businesses are utilizing the mostly small diameter wood, creating pallets, poles, and timbers.

The field trip draws to a close, and foresters scatter back to communities across New Mexico and Arizona, armed with ideas for a diversity of treatments to encourage forest health.