GRIC crews restoring forest

Christopher Lomahquahu

Gila River Indian News


Projects to restore the environment are being conducted in one national forest by a Gila River Indian Community crew. This summer, the GRIC Department of Environmental Quality’s Fuels and Restoration Crew has been in the San Juan National Forest in Colorado performing fire risk mitigation and timber stand improvement operations. 


The crew has been working on a fuels management project, completing 17 of 31 acres, that they have been contracted to treat. “Last year, we took the contract to treat a 31-acre plot, and we finished 14-acres. This year, we completed the remaining 17-acres,” said Dr. Russell Benford, Environmental Program Manager of DEQ’s Wildlife and Ecosystems Management Program. 


“In the San Juan National Forest where the crew is working, oak creates a fire risk by providing ladder fuel, and beetles are harmful to Ponderosa pine trees,” said Steven Poolheco, Habitat Restoration Crew Leader. He said with a crew of six people, there is a lot of ground to cover, but the crew was able to clear, cut and pile Gamble oak and was able to fell dangerous Ponderosa pine trees.  


Poolheco said, “[We] are reducing the small diameter oak and all the beetle-killed trees. The trees that we are leaving, we are limbing up and pulling out for pulp.” Many of the trees that have been cut down are infested with mountain pine beetle, causing the trees to rot and die.


The U.S. Forest Service has enlisted the help the of DEQ’s Fuels Crew to clear-out and cut down trees that are of low ecological value. Benford said, “The Forest Service knows that their resource base is diminished and is turning to our crew to restore it to a more ecologically healthy state.”  


“The Forest Service has a certain target density of trees to keep the forest healthy. We are dropping trees that are marked, that are green, so that the Forest Service can meet its target basal area (volume of standing wood) to keep the forest healthy,” said Ashton Lynch, Habitat Restoration Crew Leader. 


High densities of trees such as the Gamble oak pose a risk to Ponderosa pine. Benford said, “Gamble oak is a shrubby type of oak that creates ladder fuel. Ladder fuel helps a ground fire climb up into the canopy, or top part of the Ponderosa forest.” 


Benford said that Ponderosa pines are adapted to frequent, low intensity fires, which occurred historically about every seven years. That has all changed due to recent forest management strategies, and has allowed the build-up of fuels such as pine cones, tiny trees and duff (fine fuel on the ground).


 While the crew is in the San Juan National Forest, three to four of the sawyers are receiving valuable training that could improve their opportunities and pay. Benford said professional development on projects such as this brings skills back to the Community that teach other crew members. 


“It’s a chance to get the crew in some real timber and them qualified in sawyer-ship,” said Poolheco. Lynch said, “Being on the Fuels Crew opens doors for people who aren’t sure what they want to do next in their careers.” She said that working on projects outside of the Community provides opportunities and qualifications that will go a long way, possibly with other Tribal, State and Federal natural resource management agencies. 


Next year, the crew has an opportunity to work on a 10,000-acre plantation of trees managed by the USFS. “They (USFS) plan to get rid of that plantation-style structure. If a fire ripped through there, it would just take everything out, nothing would stay, because of the same size and the age of all those trees,” said Lynch. 


Community partners such as GRIC’s Employment and Training program and the Pima Agency’s Wildland Fire program recruit individuals who are interested in pursuing careers in habitat management and wildland firefighting. Benford said the opportunities are rewarding for those who like being outdoors while building their technical competencies. 


He said that generally the Fuels Crew positions are funded by grants from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, while the work out in the San Juan National Forest is paid for by contracts from the USFS. “All the funds that the crew generates on external projects turnaround and pay for personnel, supplies and equipment that the crew uses to reduce fire risk and improve wildlife habitat and cultural resources here in the Community” said Benford. He said that grants and contracts from the BIA and USFS make this work possible. 


DEQ’s Fuels Crew has been working in the San Juan National Forest since mid-August. They’ll return and resume work in the Community at the end of September.