Steve Kenyon stood next to the multi-pronged, shaggy barked stump of a juniper tree. The tree had clearly been cut down with a chainsaw not long ago, its branches scattered nearby.
From where he stood, Kenyon began to point out other juniper stumps as well.
“There’s one right there, right there, right there and right there,” he said as he turned in a circle.
In this stretch of juniper-dominated woodland north of Townsend-Winona Road and southeast of Leupp Road, Kenyon has noted dozens of trees that have been cut down.
“Every single tiny road you can see, they’ve been cutting,” Kenyon said. “It’s pretty sad what they do.”
The trees are on the Coconino National Forest and are being cut illegally, according to Forest Service officials. The agency’s law enforcement arm has initiated an investigation.
With only limited exceptions, the Forest Service issues permits for the cutting of down and dead wood, including junipers, not live trees.
Whether legally harvested or not, there appears to be a steady demand for juniper locally because trucks loaded with the logs are a frequent sight at gas stations and intersections east of town, Kenyon said.
One juniper-filled truck was parked at the corner of Silver Saddle Road and Highway 89 last week. When contacted by phone, the man selling the wood, who only gave his first name of Antonio, said he collects only dead wood from a location near Winslow. It’s hard work, he said, and his going rate is $440 per load.
The likely destination for the logs is wood-burning stoves in the area. Dave Huffman, who studies pinyon-juniper ecosystems with the Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University, said juniper is good for burning given its high density and high heat output.
Kenyon lives in the Townsend-Winona area and often goes out for drives on the dirt roads east of Doney Park. It was about three months ago that he first took note of the juniper stumps. As he kept driving, he noticed more and more.
Since then, Kenyon estimated he has spent 40 hours bumping along forest roads in his old brown and yellow Chevy truck, looking for evidence of illegal juniper cutting and trying to track down the people doing it.
People seem to come in, choose the biggest trees, then go only for the trunks, leaving piles of branches and other usable wood in their wake, he said. It's not clear-cutting, as most stumps are surrounded by living trees the cutters left alone.
Some of the trees Kenyon pointed out last week were cut so recently that resin was still oozing from their trunks and sawdust still covered the ground around them. Others looked as if they had been cut years or even decades ago. Several trees were still standing but had big chunks of their trunks chainsawed off, like delimbed figures.
Some of the bigger trunks Kenyon pointed out belonged to trees that could have been hundreds of years old. Huffman said an NAU student’s recent study found that juniper trees with trunks 30 inches in diameter were more than 200 years old.
Kenyon doubts the Forest Service will be able to do much to stop the illegal cutting, given its limited staffing — he has called the agency five times about the problem and hadn’t spoken to a law enforcement officer as of Friday.
Instead, Kenyon hopes to inspire private citizens, or maybe a local volunteer organization, to begin patrolling the area more in hopes of deterring people from illegally logging the juniper trees.
He has been writing down license plate numbers of drivers he sees cutting.
The Forest Service is investigating significant green fuel wood theft in multiple locations in Flagstaff, as well as in the areas of Forest Lakes and Lakeside, according to spokesman George Jozens.
Over the past three years, the Coconino has issued 36 warning notices, filed 215 incident reports, registered 15 mandatory court appearances and required 87 collateral forfeitures of a $250 fine for illegally cutting timber on the forest, Jozens wrote in an email.
In the past two weeks alone, Forest Service Law Enforcement have issued 11 citations of the wood-cutting regulation and seized a chainsaw and a cord of green juniper wood, Jozens wrote.
A violation of the Forest Service regulation is considered a misdemeanor with fines from $280 up to $5,000 and/or six months in jail.
“The public involvement has been a key factor in successful prosecution of fuelwood cases,” Jozens wrote. The Flagstaff Ranger District, which oversees the area of the forest around Townsend-Winona and encompasses nearly 850,000 acres, has between one and four law enforcement officers on duty at a time, he wrote.
Cutting down the oldest, biggest trees isn’t doing any favors to the ecosystem in areas that are juniper-dominated woodlands, Huffman said. Removing large, old trees in landscapes where junipers have persisted long term “is not consistent with a conservation-type approach,” Huffman said.
In some cases, restoration projects do call for removing juniper and pinyon trees in areas where they have encroached on historic grasslands, but in those cases it’s smaller trees that are being taken out, he said.
Dead juniper trees are really hard to find, so people abiding by the Forest Service’s regulations on wood collection have a tough task, Huffman said.
“They are hardy trees,” he said. “You can have a juniper tree with just a few strips of live bark and still have a live tree that will hang on for years and years.”
Flagstaff can't keep out high-density student housing complexes.
But under new rules being proposed by the city, it can try to make them more acceptable to the neighbors.
Two examples are a historic activity center designation and a change in policy to allow smaller city-owned pocket parks. They are the latest updates to the plan the city of Flagstaff is creating to address future high occupancy housing projects.
The updates arose after some of the new complexes achieved densities of more than 200 students per acre by renting by the bedroom and going up five stories.
High occupancy housing is defined as buildings with more than 75 people or 30 units per acre in dormitory or apartment-style units. For comparison, the Hub student housing complex will have 591 bedrooms on less than 2.5 acres.
Based on comments received during the public comment period, two activity centers in the downtown area have been proposed to change to “historic” activity centers instead of the existing “regional” or “neighborhood” designations, comprehensive planning manager Sara Dechter said in a presentation to the Flagstaff City Council and the Planning and Zoning Commission.
With the historic activity center designation, any rezoning would consider the downtown and character preservation goals and policies above the goals and policies of the city’s regional plan, Dechter said. The two historic activity centers would be in the downtown core and at Five Points on the Southside, which includes Our Lady of Guadalupe Chapel.
The council and commission also supported changing the city’s policy about the size of parks it will accept from developers or private owners. The city’s policy has been to not accept parks smaller than two acres, because they are generally more expensive to maintain, Dechter said.
However, of the 27 activity centers in the city, only six have parks, Dechter said. Of those parks within activity centers, only one is greater than two acres in size, meaning the city accepted the other parks before the policy allowing only parks larger than two acres was enacted.
“The policy is keeping us from getting new parks,” Dechter said in her presentation.
Since the policy has been in place, if a developer wanted to give a parcel to the city that was smaller than two acres and that the developer did not plan on using in the project, the city’s automatic response was a “no.”
Councilman Jim McCarthy said cities like Seattle have some very small parks, which add value to the city and to the community, and he said Flagstaff should be open to smaller parks.
Commissioner Marie Jones said the plan also calls for the city and developers to no longer abandon alleyways, and requires alley connectivity. Jones said alleys can be made in ways that function like parks to give pedestrians a break from the built environment and encouraged the commission and the council to look at creative ways to use alleys as civic space.
In her presentation, Dechter showed a map of areas in the city that are already zoned to allow high occupancy housing, which was coded to show the area’s “readiness” to accommodate high occupancy housing. Factors that contributed to the score include access to public transportation, utility access, street connectivity and proximity to necessities like grocery stores, schools and hospitals.
Using that data, the city determined Downtown Flagstaff, the Southside and the Woodlands Village neighborhoods were determined to be the “most ready” in terms of accessibility. Sunnyside was determined to be “moderately ready” and areas near the mall scored “low” for readiness.
Dechter said throughout the public comment process, she received many comments about areas that are “not ready for high occupancy housing.” Many of the areas of concern she said, actually scored highly for readiness. However, Dechter said, even though the area might have the needed amenities to support such development, the area is not ready from a neighborhood perspective.
Measuring where the community wants to see high occupancy developments has been more difficult, Dechter said. In her data collection, the only common answer Dechter received from respondents was somewhere not near where each individual respondent lives.
Vice Mayor Jamie Whelan said seeing the map, and seeing that all the areas near Northern Arizona University were the ones deemed the most ready for high occupancy development showed the need for the city to invest in infrastructure in the areas east of the university, away from Downtown and the Southside.
“I think we need to lace up our boots and see where do we need these capital projects so we can open up that whole side of our community that’s ready for this kind of development,” Whelan said.
Mayor Coral Evans said the city cannot prevent a developer from using their rights to create high occupancy projects in a place that is already zoned for it. But she said the city could make it easier for developers to build in areas that would be more accepting of high occupancy housing.
“The city could make improvements in places where we do want growth to go,” she said. “They can still build in places we don’t want growth to go, they just have to pay for all of those improvements.”