Coconino National Forest
Symbolized by each tree having been tagged with spray paint in order to be cut, 4FRI (Four Forest Restoration Initiative) stretches across 2.4 million acres of forest, from the South Rim of Grand Canyon to the White Mountains of eastern Arizona. It is "the largest project to restore the forest health in the history of the United States Forest Service." The Coconino National forest is one of these four forests and the city of Flagstaff is contained therein.
Because of 110 years of over-management, these four forests became dense, creating conditions where catastrophic wildfires threaten communities and the watersheds that sustain them. Imagined by a collaborative and diverse group of entities, 4FRI was created to help prevent unhealthy, large-scale, high intensity fire regimes and restore the fire-adapted ponderosa pine ecosystems to where they were before European-American contact and settlement.
In addition to creating "appropriately-scaled businesses," which would harvest, process and sell the product (stem wood) of the forest, 4FRI's other critical objective was the importance of advancing sustainable ecosystems within the forest, by improving wildlife habitat, restoring grasslands, repairing springs and streams, maintaining trails and decomissioning used logging roads.
Although I have a strong desire to atone for the past mistakes that we have made in how we have managed our forests and I applaud forest restoration, my art action, Cut for South Korea, speaks about 4FRI's failings. The questions I ask the collaborative partners, the city of Flagstaff and the Forest Service are: Why does the forest look like a war zone, ravaged and ruined after each thinning? Is there a need for the way this treatment is being done and the way it looks afterward? I ask, how did the Museum Fire really start, who caused it, and what precautions could have been taken so that it did not erupt and then spread as it did? And, the recent 2021 monsoon rains and floods took a toll within the Sunnyside neighborhood of Flagstaff, much of this caused by the Museum Fire's scar. But what impact did the overthinning at the base of Mt. Elden play into this? These are the questions that remain unanswered if this project moves forward.
I spend a lot of time on foot and on mountain bike witnessing the transformation our forest is taking due to the thinning. One favorite "unofficial," unmapped trail works its way through a ravine. It was once shaded by ponderosa pine. A seasonal stream used to meander downward, lush with yellow columbine and other forbs characteristic of moist soils and shade. This quiet ravine has now been forever changed because the thinning was so intense. The sun's rays now bake its soils, and the drought of climate change will now forever change this small micro-ecosystem.
Paralleling along the ridge above this ravine, stretches an old logging road, now graded and at times deep with dust. Lined on either side sat piles of logs that were two-stories high. These logs waited for me to tag them. They were eventually loaded onto a logging truck, transported, then reloaded as chips into shipping containers and carried by train to a port in California to be shipped across the ocean and burned as bioenergy in South Korea. Was this 4FRI's imagined objective in order to protect Flagstaff from a catastrophic wildfire?