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Wally Covington retires after over 40 years of forest science excellence
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Wally Covington retires after over 40 years of forest science excellence

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Wally Covington has been showing people the science of forestry in Flagstaff for years.

At places like Gus A. Pearson Natural Restoration Area in Flagstaff, a living forest experiment, Covington has helped bridge people’s connection to nature by explaining cutting-edge science in simple terms. He has become known as a master science communicator, and he’s been at it for years. And this week, after 44 years, at the age of 73, Covington has stepped down from his executive director position at Northern Arizona University’s Ecological Restoration Institute.

Looking back, he’s proud of the work he’s done, the people he’s met, and especially the students he’s had the opportunity to teach.

“I’m proud of all of 'em,” Covington said. “They love working with students, do great research, care about the environment — just great, great people, men and women.”

Covington actually predates the institute he’s leaving. He helped the state and federal government fund the Pearson restoration area, the research-focused ERI, and one of the first restoration projects ever funded at Mt. Trumbull near the Arizona Strip. Using this science and his skill at communicating, he helped politicians pave the way for many of our forest restoration projects today like the local Four Forest Restoration Initiative and Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project.

As to how he communicates so well? Covington said it’s simple.

“I never want to sound like a smarty-pants, or be pedantic,” he said. “That just gets you nowhere.”

Beyond his position at ERI, Covington was a key figure in a community of activists, scientists, politicians and foresters who are pushing forest management away from the conditions that have led to the catastrophic fires seen across the west.

No leading scientist stands alone, Covington points out, but getting the Pearson restoration area funded has been a critical tool for explaining science. The 12-acre experimental forest took advantage of 150-year-old trees that were mixed with trees less than 100 years old, the difference between young and old trees.

“[The experimental forest] is important because it really did set into motion that forestry must be based on strong science,” Covington said. “And this being the first U.S. Forest Service experimental forest, it’s got the longest record of scientific research in the U.S. for forest ecology.”

The experimental forest clearly lays out the problem for anyone who walks among the trees. Because of post-European settlement land management practices of suppressing fires, tree density has grown from 23 trees per acre in 1876 to 1,300 trees per acre in 1992. With such high density, groundwater is spread thin and pine needles build up, creating the perfect scenario for fire to explode into the catastrophic conditions we see today.

But ERI researchers don’t keep the gates closed to only politicians and foresters. From walking around with Flagstaff residents and elementary students during the Flagstaff Festival of Science in the '90s, to politicians looking to understand forest ecology and better land management practices, Covington has spoken to them all.

Bonnie Stevens, who organizes the Flagstaff Festival of Science, has also worked on a documentary about the state of forests with Covington. She said retirement isn’t a word she associates with the man, and expects to see him continue to work in the forest.

“This man is incredibly busy. He’s really an adviser to so many projects, yet what strikes me is in a social setting, he will remember names, and your kids' names,” Stevens said. “He will ask you about those people. You can tell he truly cares about the people he’s around.”

This includes when he gets the opportunity to spend time talking about science with the children of Flagstaff.

“It’s been great bringing the junior high kids, elementary school kids and showing them around. They ask these crazy questions you just never think of,” Covington said with a glint in his eye. “One of them was, 'what about butterflies?'”

This question of whether forest restoration impacts butterflies was one no one had asked before -- not scientifically, anyway.

“Yeah, what about butterflies...” Covington thought at the time. The question ended up becoming the focus of a dissertation by an ERI researcher Amy Waltz.

Diane Vosick, director of policy and partnerships at ERI, describes Covington as “unrelenting.” His nature helped him as he navigated political fights to push for government funding of projects in Flagstaff and as he pushed science to the forefront of policy debates surrounding forest management.

“In the policy world you take barbs. You take spears. And a lot of people just don't want to do that,” Vosick said. “He’s taken spears from multiple sides, but he’s been willing to continue to hold the line on what needs to happen.”

But many will tell you that despite Covington’s hard work, and the work of those around him, there is still more to be done as global temperatures continue to rise and the world continues to see new, unprecedented fires.

Prescriptive approach

Covington’s story was tied to NAU before he was born: His parents first met at the university campus. Covington told the story at last year's commencement of how his father would help his mother sneak out of Morton Hall in 1941 on campus.

“My mom, years later we were walking around the campus, and she said ‘y’know, your dad used to sneak me out of that dorm right there to go kanoodle,” Covington said laughing.

Covington was born in Wynniewood, Oklahoma on March 31, 1947. He said he moved away from the area at age 5, but Oklahoma, and specifically the Arbuckle Mountains, have always felt like home to him.

“Until the Arbuckle Fire of 2000, the forest had trees that were 400, 500 years old,” Covington said. “The place in Honey Creek called Blue Hole had this 80 feet by 30 feet crystal clear water and all these cascades. The fishing is great in there, hiking, anything you want.”

Covington found himself drawn to serving others and began his attempt of service at medical school after getting his bachelor's degree. He spent his early life asking himself what specialty he should be in, as opposed to asking what he wanted to do with his life.

He said he remembers an interaction with a doctor that changed his path forever.

“Well, it’s true people need help with health sometimes,” the doctor told Covington years ago. “But they also need help with enjoying life and help with that side of life, not just medical aspects. Maybe you’d be a great ventriloquist. You gotta find whatever it is that you’re good at and passionate about.”

While he quickly realized that the medical field wasn’t for him, the influence of medicine has not been lost. In a widely read commentary published in the international weekly science magazine Nature, he referred to the western forests as a “patient” in need of saving.

Common ground

As a scientist at NAU, Covington was always willing to stick his neck out for causes he believed in. This made him well equipped to enter into the contentious discussion between scientists, activists and foresters about how to manage our forests, and helped bring about a consensus.

This time in U.S. history came as activists and the public wanted more trees, and foresters had used timber to create profit. When Covington entered the scene, however, he believed that many of the timber-cutting foresters had left the service and were replaced by foresters ready to talk about conservation.

And by the late '80s, early '90s, forest health across the west was in desperate need for conservation.

An article in the Arizona Daily Sun in 1992 cited Covington when describing how forests had become increasingly at risk for insect infestations that kill off large sections of trees, and forest fires no longer the size of a few thousand acres but reaching hundreds of thousands.

Covington described how a new phenomenon called crown fires, where flames reach up and burn the tree canopies in addition to the dried needles on the ground, were causing new levels of tree and ecosystem mortality that can stun a region for years.

“The big crown fires we started to see in the 1940s were something new,” he said in 1992. “Then in the 1970s we saw fires burn 10,000 to 20,000 acres where only 3 to 5 acres would burn in pre-settlement days.”

In the '90s, Covington was warning people that 100,000-acre fires were coming. That was before fires like the Rodeo-Chediski Fire in northern Arizona that burned 468,638 acres in 2002, or Arizona’s largest wildfire, the Wallow Fire that burned ‎538,049 acres in 2011. Some have commented that Arizona is lucky neither fire caused human casualties.

Despite how non-scientists may see his predictions, he opposes any mysticism associated with forest-ecology work.

“It’s not prophetic,” Covington said. “It’s reading the damn graph.”

In his appeal to the scientific community in the Nature publication in 2000, Covington was writing to people in a savage fire season.

“The starting point must be good science,” Covington wrote. “To approach the problem with any other way will open the door for management decisions that may lead to short-sighted, uninformed ‘tree-whacking’ and forest burning that will only exacerbate the problem.”

Covington attached photos of the prescribed burns from Flagstaff’s forests to his commentary that was published internationally.

What came of the heated arguments was an idea that the forests needed to be cut, but old trees had to be saved. Trees 16 inches in diameter at breast height went forward as the new standard that everyone agreed was too large to cut.

The standard is in essence a truce that has united activists and foresters.

The future

Covington looks back fondly at his time at NAU, and said he will still be around the Flagstaff area. In his free time, he will be traveling back to the Arbuckle Mountains to assist with forest restoration in Oklahoma, hopes to pick up work in South America and plans on working with Native American fire crews. Looking back, he believes the state of the ecosystem has both reasons for despair and optimism.

“When I started out in the restoration area, I thought if we could just get 100 acres restored before I retired, I’d be a happy man. We’re well ahead of that,” Covington said, citing that 4FRI is currently attempting to treat one million acres of northern Arizona forests. He believes more projects like 4FRI are going to be needed around the west as soon as possible.

But that’s not to say that anyone should stop pushing to restore the western forests.

“It may not be in your backyard yet, but it will be. And that’s what I'm trying to get people to see,” Covington said.

Covington said ERI will need an executive director who will stay ahead of the curve, asking new questions on the topic of fire, climate change and restoration.

Pete Fulé, a former student of Covington’s who was recently promoted to regent professor of forestry at NAU, said he appreciated Covington’s thoughtfulness and how he was always looking for new ideas. Fulé is one of many who are continuing to study the impacts of the warming climate, severe fires and infestations of bark beetles on our forests.

"The work that Wally has done is extremely valuable to try to help us position ourselves, but it would not be wise to think that now the problem is solved, because it’s not," Fulé said.

For those young and old who might attempt to advocate and translate the complexities of science, Covington had three suggestions: Be well informed, focus on your passions and never give up.

“Talk with not just the right side, left side, this group or that group, young people or old people. Talk with everyone about it and your success is inevitable,” Covington said. “You just might be 73 years old when you reach it.”

Scott Buffon can be reached at sbuffon@azdailysun.com, on Twitter @scottbuffon or by phone at (928) 556-2250.

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