Dino Manuel ran one of the fire crews that battled one of Arizona’s largest-ever wildfires — the Rodeo-Chediski Fire — in June 2002. In the earliest days of the conflagration, Manuel, a citizen of the White Mountain Apache Tribe, said he and his crew worked all night to contain the blaze only to be forced to back off because the flames exploded. “We were going to work our way up to try and catch the fire,” he said. “But luckily, we didn’t start up, because just as we’re getting ready to go the wind picked up and the fire was right in front of us.
“It was just like somebody poured gasoline on that fire,” he said.
The experience of seeing nearly 280,000 acres of his tribal land burned left Manuel with a new perspective on what a wildfire can do. And, in his role as forest development supervisory forester for the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Fort Apache Agency in the White Mountain Apache Tribe’s lands, Manuel is part of a team of forestry professionals who support the tribe’s initiatives to balance a healthy ecosystem — including forests, watersheds and riparian zones, and cultural sites — with commercial logging, cattle ranching and recreation for the tribe’s 12,000 citizens and thousands of visitors.
Orlando Carroll, timber sales supervising forester for the BIA in partnership with the White Mountain Apache Tribe’s forestry department, said the tribe has cut timber for more than 100 years. Some areas of the designated timber stands have been harvested three or four times, he said. But that didn’t happen by accident: “Active management contributes to the health of this forest,” said Carroll, also a White Mountain Apache tribal citizen. “You can’t just look at a forest like it’s just pristine and we can’t touch it. We have to manage it.”
Fire as a tradition
Throughout the West, tribal land stewards have used fire as a tool to keep lands clear of dried plant material buildup, stimulate fresh growth in plants and grass, and help reduce the destructiveness of wildfires. Some tribal stewards point to the fires engulfing millions of acres in California, where fire suppression and protecting timber stands have been a staple of federal and state public lands policies, as proof of what can happen in the absence of traditional practices.
Fire is also no stranger to the Apache people in the Southwest. The tribe has been engaged in prescribed burning for centuries, Carroll said. In days before the first contact with White explorers, the practice was mainly used to manage its big game species.
“Smoke was an indicator in the fall of abundance of large animals like deer in particular,” he said. Elk have roamed the mountains and valleys of Apache country, although Carroll said that these days, the Rocky Mountain elk are managed.
“Timber harvesting benefits big game in a big way,” he said, allowing forest land to grow more grasses for forage while leaving enough cover to hunker down in the winter. Also, Carroll said, forest management enhances clean water sources for wildlife. “All kinds of benefits come out of it,” he said.
From 1950 through the 1990s, more than 845,000 acres have been treated with prescribed burns, according to the BIA. Because the White Mountain Apache Tribe is a sovereign nation, its government can set its own environmental and commercial regulations. The tribal government has enacted ordinances to oversee the management of its natural resources, including not only its forest stands, but watersheds, game, and fish – including sustaining the endemic Apache trout – and preserving cultural and sacred sites where people go to pray, collect medicinal plants and other cultural activities.
Tribal officials did not respond to requests from The Republic for an interview about their forestry or environmental protection initiatives.
One big advantage of burning off dead brush and overgrown areas is how forests treated with active management protocols respond to wildfires. “Once timber-managed areas are approached by these wildfires, they have a tendency to slow down,” Carroll said. “It does not put them out, it just slows them down.”
That’s what happened during both the 468,600-acre Rodeo-Chediski Fire and the 2011 Wallow Fire, which scorched 538,000 acres. “The Wallow fire was a very large fire, but only about 12,000 acres were affected on the Fort Apache Reservation,” said Jere McLemore, the BIA’s acting forest manager. “The behavior of the fire was definitely very erratic, but when it got to areas that had been treated, crews were able to keep it more controlled than what it would have been otherwise.”
McLemore added that the Wallow Fire threatened the highest points in the White Mountain Apache lands, including several cultural sites, but the flames were stopped before they reached those sites. “It probably opened people’s eyes to what can happen and how things can be managed,” McLemore said. “The Wallow Fire was a good illustration of how forest management could affect the outcomes of fires.”
McLemore said that the Rodeo-Chediski Fire burned in the western part of the White Mountain Apache Reservation, which has a diverse topography with many canyons and hilly terrain. That harsh setting led to the tribe’s decision to defer intense management. “A lot of that area will take years and years to recover,” he said. “So the western part of the reservation has received reforestation and thinning, but there hasn’t been any harvesting on that side.”
Since the two big fires, several other wildfires have occurred on tribal lands, including the Lofer Fire on the reservation’s east side. That fire is burning dried grass and pine litter, and according to the BIA, firefighter and public safety are fire crews’ number one priority while minimizing the blaze’s impacts on cultural resources, wildlife, rangeland, watersheds, recreation areas, natural resources and infrastructure protection.
Different use coexist
The tribe resumed timber harvesting in 2013 after a period of cutting very little after the Rodeo-Chediski Fire, said Carroll. The sawmill, which is a tribal-owned enterprise, also went back into operation. It’s not producing as much as it did before the 2002 fire, but the mill is still important to the tribe’s economy.
McLemore added that the White Mountain Apache Tribe sells its smaller diameter trees and other leftovers of the timber harvest to a small biomass energy-generating plant in Snowflake and to a wood pellet producer in Pinetop. That reduces the need for prescribed burns and creates another revenue stream.
Managing the tribe’s forests also helps support a healthy ecosystem. The Apache people consider themselves part of the land, said McLemore. And being stewards of the land by responsible, careful management of their resources is one of the tribe’s responsibilities, said McLemore. “It’s another way to dispose of smaller timber without having to burn the slash piles created from the harvesting.”
Carroll also noted another factor in managing the effects of wildfire – the natural progression of tree species growth. A 1905 wildfire that scorched about 60,000 acres of White Mountain Apache lands in what he called a mosaic pattern resulted in the emergence of aspen stands. “Much of those aspen patches are about 110, 115 years old,” said Carroll. “But there’s some interesting dynamics happening out there in those mixed conifer areas where aspen was open at one time — underneath, we’re seeing conifer species growing.” Those small conifer trees, including Ponderosa pine, are shade tolerant. As they grow, the aspens are declining.
Cultural protection is also top of mind for both the BIA and the tribal foresters. Carroll said his staff are all trained para archaeologists and take special care to avoid damaging any cultural sites when working. These sites are not open to the public, nor are their locations disclosed outside the tribe or BIA forestry staff.
The BIA and tribal foresters also work closely with the 11 cattlemen’s associations in the nation, said Carroll. “A lot of cattle do their summer grazing in our prime timber areas.” The foresters work with the cattle ranchers to manage fencing and other bovine herding issues. “We realize as timber managers, we’re not the only users of the land and our needs aren’t the only things that are important to everybody else,” he said.
Carroll, who’s been with the agency for nearly 30 years, and hopes to recruit the next generation of Apache forest managers to take his place once he reaches the end of his career. “It was a good start for me as a young forester coming to the Bureau of Indian Affairs to recognize the importance of not only managing for timber, but for all other resource benefits,” he said. “I think that’s been our approach here, recognizing that we can manage to maintain the system that’s natural and there for the benefit of the people.”
Debra Krol covers issues related to Indigenous communities in Arizona and the Southwest. Reach the reporter at debra.krol@AZCentral.com or at 602-444-8490. Follow her on Twitter at @debkrol.
Coverage of Indigenous issues at the intersection of climate, culture and commerce is supported by the Catena Foundation and the Water Funder Initiative.
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