The Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project (FWPP) – what’s it all mean??

The Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project (FWPP) – what’s it all mean??

In 2012, Flagstaff voters decided to change the way that forest thinning treatments are funded by approving a $10 million city bond to pay for the Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project. After watching the Schultz Fire burn a large swath on the east side of the San Francisco Peaks in 2010, followed by intense flooding, Flagstaff citizens decided something needed to be done to prevent a similar fate for the Rio de Flag watershed to the west.

Yes, the public – that’s you! – is paying, and you get to tell the Forest Service what you want.

Much of the treatment will occur on Mount Elden and Dry Lake Hills, within Flagstaff’s beloved Peaks viewshed and a popular outdoor recreation area. These areas are not just beautiful places to play; they are also home to threatened Mexican spotted owls and large predators such as mountain lions and black bears. They contain numerous ephemeral lakes and springs, as well as archaeological sites and lush old growth forests. Even the Arizona Daily Sun, which argued that “halfway measures won’t work if flooding is to be forestalled,” turned around two weeks later to suggest that one of its treasured spots be given “a wide berth by any industrial loggers.”

So, what exactly is being proposed and what does it all mean?

Well, this project will occur in pretty complicated landscapes (that’s what makes them so special). I’m going to try to break down some of the major things to be concerned about.

First off, you should understand that the Forest Service just released a Draft Environmental Impact Statement and the public (that’s you) has until August 18 to comment by emailing You don’t have to be an expert to comment, nor do you have to read every document on the website. You simply have to care about the Forest and have something to say.

Read the information below and then email before August 18th to tell the Forest Service what you want them to do. Please refer to the talking points at the bottom of this post and adapt them as you choose.

There are four options being proposed. You can support or oppose a whole option or part of an option, or you can just tell the Forest Service about a place or a type of forest that you care about, or an issue that concerns you.

These are the four options proposed by the Forest Service:
1) No action (this is something the Forest Service is required to consider, for comparison purposes: what are the risks and benefits if we do nothing?)
2) A mix of treatments that emphasizes cable logging. (This is what it sounds like. Parallel cables are strung across steep slopes, and everything along the cable is demolished and dragged out of the way. See Figures 1, 2, 3, and 5 below.)
3) A mix of treatments that emphasizes helicopter logging (yes, that means that logs get stacked on the mountain and helicopters carry them away) and other steep-slope machinery but uses no cables.
4) A “minimal treatment” that avoids treating the steepest slopes and, therefore, has no cable or helicopter logging or other steep-slope machinery.

Let’s start by talking about viewshed.

I attended one of the Forest Service public meetings and was assured that cable logging leaves a temporary scar that would heal in just a few years. Really? I asked if there was any place where I could tour a cable-logged area in Arizona. No. How about New Mexico. Ummm…no. Anywhere in the arid Southwest? No. The Forest Service staff could not supply me with a single example.

I put a call out on Facebook and received numerous reports of an area of the White Mountains that nobody assigned to working on FWPP seemed to know about. I don’t know what year it was logged, but, as you can see below, the scars resemble a tree plantation and don’t significantly change during 15 years of imagery. This is evidence that cable logging will fundamentally change the nature of the forest on Mount Elden.

Fig1cablescarsFigure 1 Cable logging remains visible for decades.

Does the cable-logged area look like habitat? It looks pretty industrial to me.

OK, but this will help to reduce fire risk, right??

Well, let’s look at how this cable-logged area fared during the Wallow Fire of 2011.

Instead of breaking up the fire, the fire appears to have moved along the cable cut areas (see Figures 2 and 3, below). I can’t say if this is normal or not – but you should ask the Forest Service to stick to proven methods for treating forests to reduce fire risks, such as thinning smaller trees and the “ladder” fuels that transfer ground fires to the forest canopy (Allen et al. 2002). If you notice, the largest patches of live trees remaining after the fire are in swaths between the cuts. Local forest experts aren’t sure why this is – could be that the open forest structure allowed soils to dry out, or maybe fire-carrying weeds such as cheatgrass grew in the openings. Or, the fire might have just moved through the steepest slopes, regardless of whether they were treated. Maybe the largest, most fire-resistant trees were removed, leaving the small trees to burn.

Research shows that larger trees are more fire resilient (Agee and Skinner 2005, Keyser et al. 2006). (Although, the Forest Service keeps assuring me that removing large trees allows smaller trees to grow and become big. They say that they need to remove large trees to encourage the future growth of large trees. I say, if you want to have big trees, then leave big trees behind and only cut the small trees. But I’m not a forester.) It’s hard to say what happened in these cable-logged plots. All we can say is that the cable logging did not prevent fire spread, and, in this case, many (but not all) trees within the cuts died.

Below, you can see the cuts during and after the fire. These pictures are more zoomed out than the last images. I included an older black-and-white image so you can see exactly where the cable cuts are. Figure 2 shows an area before, during, and after fire. Figure 3 shows the same area at three different scales, so you can see where live trees remain a year after the fire. There are some live trees within the cuts, but most live trees are in between the cuts.

Fig2_3timesFigure 2 The Wallow Fire, active during middle image, burned right through these cable-logged areas. Live forest remains in untreated areas.
Fig3_3scalesFigure 3 Large patches of forest remain alive after the fire – in untreated areas.

OK, so we’ve determined that cable logging industrializes the landscape and doesn’t necessarily increase fire protection. The next question is, will it stop flooding?

Well, I don’t know. Nobody knows. In fact, it could increase flood risk and soil erosion in the years after treatment. The Forest Service doesn’t know either. When it prepared this draft plan, it didn’t model the potential for increased runoff, erosion, and flooding after treatment and before new groundcover has had a chance to establish. It only modeled the potential for runoff after different fire intensities, with the prediction that thinning would reduce fire intensity. But if it removes all vegetation in straight lines up the steepest slopes all over the watershed, it is very possible that water and soil will move downhill.

In fact, an experiment in the Beaver Creek watershed in central Arizona, where researchers cut down parallel strips of trees and thinned in between (similar to what’s proposed in FWPP), found that water flow will increase for 3–4 years after the treatment and the effects might remain for up to 10 years if the cut is extremely aggressive (Baker Jr. 2010). Other researchers found that the effects could be more severe in higher elevations (Gottfried 1991, Zou et al. 2010).

Currently, the Forest Service is only modelling the potential for runoff if a fire occurs with or without thinning treatments, with the prediction that a fire will be less severe if treatments are more aggressive. It is possible to model the temporary increase in runoff after trees are removed, and the Forest Service has been experimenting with this for almost 100 years (Bosch and Hewlett 1982, Zou et al. 2010). The Forest Service should model the flooding it might cause, before it decides how to implement this project.

The effects of increasing flood risk might be temporary, but, if our goal is to reduce flooding, let’s make sure we choose an action plan that actually does that. Intermediate thinning might achieve our goals better than cable logging.

fig4floodingFigure 4 Let’s not accidentally do this to ourselves or our neighbors. (Photo credit Emily Renn)

OK, so we’re pretty sure cable logging will not stop fire, at least not for the long term, and we’re pretty sure it will carry a flood risk. So, where is the Forest Service proposing to convert our forests into industrialized rows of trees? The cables are drawn as blue, green, or black parallel lines in the map below. You can see they will cover a lot of the landscape.

cable mapFigure 5 Cable logging proposed on Mount Elden and Dry Lake Hills.

This map also shows temporary roads, which can invite recreational use of the downhill paths if they are not properly rehabilitated and obscured after treatment. The Forest Service admits to having quite a problem with unauthorized downhill cyclists creating their own routes, and the timing of this project will coincide with a major recreation project on Mount Elden and Dry Lake Hills. What will be the effects of the two projects together? That is a great question for the Forest Service….

Alright, we’ve heard what’s wrong. What can we support in the FWPP proposal?

There are definitely some things to support in this project, and some new things to ask for. First and foremost is a proposed ban on campfires in the area to be treated. Many of Flagstaff’s residents have been asking for a campfire ban in the entire Coconino National Forest during the annual dry season. Because the Forest Service has not been amenable to that suggestion, a year-round ban in this high stakes area is a good start.

We encourage an approach similar to Alternative 4 in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement. That approach would focus on treating shallower and less erodible slopes. The goal should be to return natural processes to the area, including the fast-moving, low-intensity fires that ponderosa pine forests naturally support and the occasional small but high-intensity fire that mixed conifer forests are adapted to (see Allen et al. 2002). Alternative 4 also protects threatened Mexican spotted owls because the other alternatives require all snags (standing dead trees) to be removed from 267–391 acres of Mexican spotted owl habitat. The cable-logging alternative (Alternative 2) would require the removal of 206 trees greater than 24” in diameter from Mexican spotted owl habitat and the removal of 132 trees larger than 18” in diameter from cable corridors. Alternative 4 avoids all of those impacts.

Because Flagstaff residents are paying for this, you might also want to know the predicted costs for each alternative. Alternative 2 (cable logging) will cost $7.3 million; Alternative 3 (helicopter logging) will cost $8.5 million; and Alternative 4 (minimal treatment) will cost $4.1 million.

You can comment on FWPP until August 18 by emailing Get more info here. Please refer to the talking points below and adapt them as you choose.

Suggested talking points:

1) The U.S. Forest Service should make every attempt to protect the integrity, ecology, and viewsheds of the areas to be treated under FWPP. Alternative 4 best achieves these goals.
2) Support a campfire closure in areas to be treated under FWPP.
3) Support an approach similar to Alternative 4, with a goal of returning frequent low-intensity fires to the treatment areas. Stick to proven methods for treating forests to control fire, such as clearing out smaller trees and the “ladder” fuels that transfer ground fires to the forest canopy.
4) The US Forest Service should research and investigate the following prior to making a decision:

  • Consider previous cable-logging projects that have occurred in the arid Southwest and the effects of those projects before deciding whether cable logging is appropriate in these locations. For example, how long do effects on viewshed last? What are the implications for habitat and soils? Do the treatments change the way fire moves through the landscape?
  • Consider the potential for increased runoff, erosion, and flooding after treatment and before new groundcover has had a chance to establish. The Forest Service should model the potential for increased runoff that will result from removal of trees and understory as part of this project. Currently, it is only modelling the potential for runoff if a fire occurs with or without thinning treatments – that kind of analysis will not predict the effects of treatment if no fire occurs.
  • Consider safety issues that may arise from logging adjacent to roads and on steep slopes. For example, could the potential for rock slides be increased?
  • Consider the cumulative effects of this project and the Mt. Elden – Dry Lake Hills Recreation Project.
  • Consider closing the upper part of Mt. Elden Road to all but administrative use to protect fragile soils from excessive recreational use after treatment. The Forest Service has not been able to prevent cyclists from creating new trails through sensitive habitats and archaeological sites. This project will open the forests and will increase the erosive potential of soils on steep slopes. The Forest Service must protect those soils post-treatment. The Forest Service should also delay decisions and implementation for the Mt. Elden – Dry Lake Hills Recreation Project until the full effects of FWPP are understood. Also, Mount Elden Lookout Road is prone to rockslides, including one that crushed a 27-year-old man last year. Limiting access might help to keep the road in a better condition for those who need to use it regularly to access infrastructure on the mountain. (Rumor has it that communication tower staff would like the road closed partway up to protect their safety.)


Agee, J.K., and C.N. Skinner. 2005. Basic principles of forest fuel reduction treatments. Forest Ecology and Management. 211:83-96.
Baker Jr., M. B. (1986), Effects of Ponderosa Pine Treatments on Water Yield in Arizona, Water Resour. Res., 22(1), 67–73, doi: 10.1029/WR022i001p00067.
Bosch, J.M. and J.D. Hewlett. 1982. A review of catchment experiments to determine the effect of vegetation changes on water yield and evapotranspiration. Journal of Hydrology 55:3-23.
Craig D. Allen, Melissa Savage, Donald A. Falk, Kieran F. Suckling, Thomas W. Swetnam, Todd Schulke, Peter B. Stacey, Penelope Morgan, Martos Hoffman, and Jon T. Klingel. 2002. ECOLOGICAL RESTORATION OF SOUTHWESTERN PONDEROSA PINE ECOSYSTEMS: A BROAD PERSPECTIVE. Ecological Applications 12:1418–1433.;2
Gottfried, G. J. (1991), Moderate timber harvesting increases water yields from an Arizona mixed conifer watershed. JAWRA Journal of the American Water Resources Association, 27: 537–546. doi: 10.1111/j.1752-1688.1991.tb01454.x
Keyser, T.L., F.W. Smith, L.B. Lentile, and W.D. Shepperd. 2006. Modeling postfire mortality of Ponderosa pine following a mixed-severity wildfire in the Black Hills: the role of tree morphology and direct fire effects. Forest Science 52:530-539.
Zou, C.B., P.F. Ffolliott, and M. Wine. 2010. Streamflow responses to vegetation manipulations along a gradient of precipitation in the Colorado River Basin. Forest Ecology and Management 259:1268-1276.

About Protect Grand Canyon

Sierra Club's Restore and Protect the Greater Grand Canyon Ecoregion Campaign. Looking out for the 11,400 species that live in & love Grand Canyon!

Posted on August 6, 2014, in #Forests, Public Lands, Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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