NAU students determined to return Arizona forest to its former glory, one tree at a time

It's shaping up to be another wicked wildfire season. These fires don't only devastate plants and animals, they can also damage homes, buildings, and even threaten the Valley's water supply.

That's why Salt River Project and Northern Arizona University are teaming up to make some big changes to the forests in our state to keep the water flowing to your faucet.

You may see a dense, lush, beautiful forest, but scientists see an overgrown, overcrowded, unhealthy area – like a tinder box ready to explode.

"There are way too many trees.. they are competing for resources. And they’re also susceptible to insect and disease, fire, and droughts with the increased temperature is what we are seeing and what we were expecting," said Professor Andrew Sanchez Meador of NAU's Ecological Restoration Institute.

Professor Meador is leading a small team of NAU students doing field research near Payson. They're equipped with the latest technology: Lidar detector. It's like radar, but with lasers. They measure the forest from carpet to canopy, acre by acre, branch by branch.

"We're out here for eight straight days at a time, camping, working from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day," said Merideth Reiser, an NAU graduate research assistant.

Before man altered the area with grazing and harvesting, wildfires were different. They burned more frequently, but slower and cooler, mowing down grass, smaller plants and trees, which made more room for roots and branches. That meant more snow made it to the ground. The snowmelt and rainfall filled the water shed.

"This is where your water comes from. In the winter, we get snow. In the monsoon, we get rain. It makes its way into the rivers and canals and into your home," said SRP spokesperson Patty Garcia-Likens.

One of the problems is called ladder fuel. The fire eats up the debris on the ground, it jumps to the saplings, then up to the trees and causes what's called a crown fire. The fire jumping from tree to tree, destroying everything in its path.

Today's bigger, hotter wildfires are fueled by thousands of trees per acre. The ash and debris wash into rivers and reservoirs, reducing water storage capacity, and damaging infrastructure.

"We need to provide water not only for today, but 100 to 150 years from now. And we have to look at the situation or watershed," said Meador. "How can we improve it? How can we fix things that need to be fixed."

Researchers also deploy drones and airplanes with Lidar for a wider look. They match it with ground measurements to get a 3-D view and identify areas that need to be cut back.

"The remaining forest will be resilient to fire, drought, increased temperatures, insects, and disease. So as we move forward with anticipated climate changes, we're setting up the forest to be resilient," said Meador.

SRP hopes to thin out 500,000 acres by 2035 – starting this summer with 1,000 acres north of Payson.

"We are going to need more hands-on projects to create more sustainable systems for the water and the ecosystems. And it's important to me to be part of it," said Garcia-Likens.

And it all starts with a small group of students determined to return the forest to its former glory, one tree at a time.

SRP customers can find out more and even donate $3 a month to help pay for the project:

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