Last week, in the forest southwest of Lake Mary, a group of volunteers wound their way through ponderosa-covered slopes, rocky drainages and knee high grasses.
Their goal was to find and follow the route that water takes as it flows from the flanks of Mormon Mountain, through the forest and into upper Lake Mary, one of Flagstaff’s main water sources.
Along the way the men noted and recorded erosion, geology and vegetation details about the drainage as part of a data collection effort related to the Four Forest Restoration Initiative, or 4FRI, northern Arizona’s 2.4 million-acre forest health project.
The volunteer trip was organized by the Grand Canyon Trust, a Flagstaff nonprofit that has long been an active player in 4FRI. After the Forest Service gave the final go-ahead for forest treatments to begin on the project’s first 1 million acres in 2015, the Trust has turned its focus to getting volunteers involved in the forest work. Over three trips this summer, volunteers surveyed springs, streams and drainages in the 4FRI area.
The idea was to engage regular citizens on the ground level of a project that has been a major focus for the Trust and is also relevant to the region right now, said Andrew Mount, who works with the Trust’s volunteer program. Bringing in citizen science provides an intimate, hands-on way to teach about the bigger issues on the Colorado Plateau, said Emily Thompson, the nonprofit’s volunteer program director.
It’s also an area where positive progress can be made despite the 4FRI project’s struggles to ramp up mechanical thinning and figure out a way to process a massive volume of timber into valuable products.
So far, the Trust’s work has been a huge help to the resource-strapped Forest Service, said Tom Runyon, a hydrologist on the Coconino National Forest. The volunteers are surveying miles of streambed that would otherwise take years for the federal agency’s few hydrologists to complete, Runyon said.
“We are accomplishing way more than what the Forest Service would otherwise be able to do without these volunteers," he said.
Though mechanical tree thinning and the reintroduction of fire on the landscape are the hallmarks of the 4FRI project, it also calls for watershed restoration, which is what spurred the Forest Service and the Trust to collaborate on this summer’s volunteer watershed surveys, Mount and Runyon said.
Over the three trips, 16 volunteers surveyed 60 miles of perennial and seasonal streams and another seven volunteers surveyed 25 springs across the Coconino and Kaibab national forests. The goal each time was to gather information that would allow the Forest Service to figure out which areas to prioritize for restoration as well as to know baseline conditions in order to conduct future studies on how or if forest treatments have an effect on the region’s watersheds.
Last week, the Trust’s trip focused on drainages around Lake Mary. Using a free smartphone app that uses a phone’s GPS capabilities, the volunteers walked various drainages and noted areas where roads cut across or ran through the water’s path, where erosion was evident or where there were changes in vegetation and types of rocks or soil. Each time they noticed something, the volunteers snapped a photo and typed in a brief description that was stored in the phone and then automatically uploaded to a database accessed by the Forest Service.
For volunteers, it’s gratifying to know that the data they collect will be almost immediately available to decision-makers rather than scribbled onto a spreadsheet that may or may not ever be looked at again, volunteer Jim Merrill said.
“This is moving data collection into the 21st century,” Merrill said. “For me in the field it makes it seem like the work is so much more valuable. It’s a real reason to be here.”
Runyon said the Forest Service wants to address the worst waterway damage that volunteers identify -- roads cutting through waterways and severe streambank erosion --- within a year.
That watershed restoration won’t be paid for with 4FRI dollars, but the staff time to coordinate the Trust’s surveying trips was part of the forest restoration initiative, Runyon said.
As they hiked in the shadow of Mormon Mountain, the volunteers’ route led over an abandoned cablecar track likely used for hauling logs out of the forest, through the rocky bed of the seasonal stream and across open meadows, where the water likely would likely have pooled and slowed to a crawl.
The group encountered old ranching objects, rusted metal cables and decomposing railroad ties, signaling the decades of human activity this forest has seen.
Volunteers said the trip gave them a more intimate, ground-level perspective on how water flows in the Lake Mary watershed and the connection between the forest’s many drainages and Flagstaff’s water supply.
“This is a story of how the forest has evolved over centuries and how it’s being affected by anthropogenic impacts,” said Andy Gould, a volunteer from Flagstaff. “It’s really how the objectives of 4FRI tie into the watershed objectives and the concerns of the city of Flagstaff in terms of water.”