Apaches' care for forests is lesson for all Arizona
Fires collapse on fuel-thinned tribal land

June 27, 2002 12:00:00


In war, the narrow difference between victory and catastrophe often turns on luck. If the embattled forest communities of Show Low and Pinetop-Lakeside survive this siege of flame, their talisman will have been their neighbor, the Apaches.

The fight to save this forest region remains dicey. But the prudent forest management practiced on the Fort Apache Reservation won a great victory Monday night against the rampaging "Rodeo-Chediski" fire. And if Arizona learns anything from this holocaust, it should be to follow the Apaches' lead in preparing for it.

In the wee hours of Monday and into Tuesday morning, the great fire made numerous ferocious charges east from Hop Canyon south of Show Low. Each time, the flames met forest land managed by the Apaches and instantly died.

Early that night, hundreds of "hotshots" worked the flat ridge land east of the canyon, in an area known as Cottonwood Ridge. They set backfires that ate up the ankle-length grasses growing amid the pines that had been carefully thinned as recently as two years ago by the Apaches. Denied fuel, the fire collapsed.

The difference today between untreated forest along Limestone Ridge west of Hop Canyon and the forest of Cottonwood Ridge could not be more stark. Limestone Ridge is a moonscape of blackened stumps and ash. On Cottonwood Ridge, elk could be seen roaming as recently as Tuesday evening.

Had the tribe not thinned Cottonwood Ridge - work that included commercial logging - Pinetop-Lakeside almost certainly would be in grave jeopardy today. According to the tribe's fire prevention officers, the fire easily may have swept across U.S. 60 at that point with nothing to stop it until it reached Hon Dah at Arizona 73.

Presuming the "monster" ultimately is contained and the forests east of U.S. 60 are spared, the task facing Arizona to avert the next Rodeo-Chediski is awesome.

The Apaches have been conducting prescribed burns on their portion of the forests since 1945, averaging 30,000 acres of clearing and burning each year. They have commercially logged their land for at least that long.

The great point of contention over forest management today centers on the role those commercial logging operations should play. The Battle of Cottonwood Ridge - the turning point, perhaps, in the Rodeo-Chediski war - tells us the forest may have been saved by stewards who earned money for their efforts.

That may be a lesson all of Arizona will have to learn.



Reprinted as a historic reference document under the Fair Use doctrine of international copyright law. http://www4.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.html