Hoxworth Springs, 12 miles south of Flagstaff on the Coconino National Forest just west of Upper Lake Mary, have been a life-sustaining source of water in a dry landscape for centuries. The springs and spring-fed wet meadow filter runoff, stabilize soils and draw wildlife from miles around.
The springs and valley have also been the recipient of nearly a half-million dollars worth of rehabilitation work during the past two decades.
But last August, as a result of an omission in the U.S. Forest Service database, a subcontractor bladed a new logging road into the valley bottom too close to the fragile springs. Now, the stream channel is at risk for increased erosion with the next heavy rain or snowmelt runoff, neither of which has occurred at Hoxworth Springs since last fall. More sediment may wash into Upper Lake Mary, ultimately decreasing the lifespan of the lake, where Flagstaff draws 40 percent of its municipal drinking water supply.
100 YEARS OF FIRE SUPPRESSION
The logging was needed after 100 years of fire suppression made the forest on the slopes above the springs too dense. A 2007 environmental assessment called for forest thinning in Hoxworth Springs area, citing wildfire risk to the nearby community of Elk Park Meadows. It also called for closing the remains of an old road running alongside the outlet channel and relocating it to the west to “eliminate road related impacts to the Hoxworth Springs riparian area.”
The last vestiges of the old road were blocked to all but foot traffic and should have been marked as “decommissioned” in the database. USFS personnel missed that small but critically important task.
According to Amber Dorsch, Flagstaff District supervisory forester for the Coconino National Forest, the original 2008 forest thinning contract was a conventional timber sale but was converted to a Task Order 2013, making it a subset of the larger Four Forest Restoration Initiative stewardship contract. A subcontractor for New Life Forest Products (formerly Good Earth Power AZ) began forest thinning work with a plan based on a map that mistakenly showed the old road as open.
Jacob Lopez, Flagstaff District timber sale administrator for the Coconino National Forest, explained that once the contract was in place the subcontractor had the right to use the existing road.
Had the old road been marked as closed, USFS personnel would have had more room to negotiate with the subcontractor on the new road placement. The road should have been placed outside of the prescribed buffer widths listed in the 4FRI 2015 final Environmental Impact Statement, up to 120 feet on either side of the stream course. A forest health project that involves protecting a sensitive resource (where the cost of work exceeds the value of the timber) could also have been converted to an Integrated Resource Service Contract, where a portion of the project is subsidized with federal dollars.
TWISTED ROOT BALLS
Today, a swath of bare, red-brown earth runs up the north side of the meadow, just below the obvious remains of a recent logging operation on the slopes above. The new road is lined with mounds of loose earth and huge, twisted ponderosa pine root balls pulled from the road bed. Piles of pine slash and a red and white “Road Closed” sign temporarily block access to the road. An older wooden sign to one side states that the area is closed to all but foot traffic for the purposes of protection and rehabilitation.
Much of the rehabilitation work at Hoxworth Springs has been spearheaded by Abe Springer, professor of hydrogeology at Northern Arizona University in the School of Earth Sciences and Sustainability, in partnership with the Coconino National Forest and the Arizona Water Protection Fund (AWPF).
Several rounds of Hoxworth restoration between 1996 and 2009 included channel reshaping and stabilization, fence construction and revegetation, as well as elk and cattle exclosures and low-head dam removal. To date, $440,000 of restoration work has been funded by Coconino National Forest district project funding and AWPF grants. Factoring in the labor and in-kind contributions, the investment in Hoxworth Springs easily exceeds a half- million dollars.
The forest thinning contract at Hoxworth Springs remains open and Dorsch and Lopez estimate operations will be completed by fall of 2018, weather permitting. At that point all valley bottom portions of the road will be permanently decommissioned and restored by scarifying the roadbed and reseeding.
In the meantime, streambank erosion is probable, as well as pulses of sediment moving down the stream channel, which ultimately feeds into Upper Lake Mary.
“The lake already has high sediment content, so we don’t necessarily want more. Having said that, forest thinning and maintenance is absolutely critical for that watershed,” said Brad Hill, city of Flagstaff water services director. He added that runoff following catastrophic wildfire would render the lake water unusable until the City installed additional treatment infrastructure, which could run into the tens of millions of dollars.
LEARNING FROM MISTAKE
For Dorsch and Lopez, what happened at Hoxworth Springs opened the door to discussion of other logging methods for other fragile areas.
“Maybe cable logging in the drainage bottoms or maybe hand-thinning would be appropriate in those areas,” Lopez suggested.
Forest thinning at Hoxworth Springs may generate new research opportunities as well. Springer and Forest Service hydrologists predict that with fewer thirsty pines, more soil moisture will be available for the springs, streamflow and meadow plants for several years. This is an opportunity to study the springs’ response to forest thinning.
Further, Christopher MacDonald, soils and watershed program manager with the Coconino and Kaibab national forests, credits the damage at Hoxworth Springs with the recent resurrection of a robust pre-treatment review process called Plan In Hand (PIH). The PIH process requires USFS personnel from multiple resource areas to review proposed treatments ahead of time to ensure soil, watershed and wildlife resources are protected before forest thinning commences.