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9/8/2010 Northern Arizona University researchers …

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by Shaun M cKinnon - Sept. 8, 2010 12:00 AM


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FLAGSTAFF - For more than 100 years, a 160-acre plot of ponderosa-pine forest near
Barney Spring, on the edge of the Mogollon Rim, has stood untouched. No one has cut
down trees. Roads stop at the forest's edge. Wildfires have been kept out.

Now, the owner of the private property, which is closed to users of the adjacent national
forest, has opened the land to a team of Northern Arizona University researchers, who
spent the summer counting trees, plotting them on a map and determining the height and
age of pines that predate the arrival of European settlers.

The stand of trees gives researchers a rare look into the past and should yield valuable
information about the growth patterns of old pines, the historical condition of the forest
and the effects of changes in the surrounding landscape.

The property, about 25 miles southwest of Flagstaff, could also become a laboratory for
scientists and land managers trying to restore and protect the millions of acres of Arizona
forests damaged by decades of fire and disease. Researchers hope to learn more about
forest thinning and ecosystem health and apply their findings in larger settings.

"By not having roads, by not having trees cut up for firewood, we can see how the trees
grow and how they fall," said Wally Covington, director of NAU's Ecological Restoration
Institute. "We can try to roll back the clock to the 1880s and use the data we get to see
what it might have been like."

Such an untouched pine forest is unusual, although not unheard of, especially in
protected wilderness areas. Researchers speak in reverent tones about pristine slopes
near the Grand Canyon. But few can offer the combination of a cooperative private owner
and the easy access of the Barney Spring property.

The land, a few miles from the canyons leading down into Sedona, has been in private
hands since the late 1800s, when the Santa Fe Railroad bought it, likely as a source of
water for steam engines. The current owner, Flagstaff businessman Warren Smith, has
no plans to develop it and is allowing NAU to conduct its research.

The first step in the research project is a detailed inventory of the property, which will
allow scientists to figure out which trees were growing before the advent of forest-
management policies. Tree rings and core samples will allow researchers to plot on a
map where and how the oldest trees grow.

"This forest should give us a better idea on a larger scale of how trees are supposed to
be growing," said Eryn Schneider, an NAU graduate student who is leading the research
this summer. "Then when it comes time to do restoration, we have an idea of what a
healthy structure is."

To help peel away the layers, Schneider and the other NAU students will produce a

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detailed description of the forest and its trees. They divided the parcel into 50-meter
squares (about 538 square feet) and, using lasers and computer software, plotted more
than 6,000 trees on a map. They measured the trees' height and circumference and will
determine the age of about 3,000.

The trees climb high, many over 135 feet, and some are as old as 200 years, their bark
yellow and orange with age. The oldest trees can give researchers a glimpse into the
past, studying growth patterns in the 1800s, when the forest was likely thinner, and
comparing them with younger trees.

Finding a tree's age requires a piece of the tree. For the Barney Spring study, students
use a boring tool to extract a section of the tree, a core small enough to fit inside a
drinking straw. Later, the core will be dried and mounted, and other researchers will count
the rings, noting the number and the width.

Schneider's study will also examine the way trees are arranged. Scientists believe that in
a healthy forest, trees tend to grow in groups, or clumps. The wider spaces let more
vegetation grow and allow more snow to accumulate, feeding the underground aquifers.

Although the Barney Spring property has been left alone, it does not look like it might
have earlier in the 1800s, scientists say. There are too many trees crowded too close
together.

The floor is a spongy carpet of pine needles and mushrooms, with thickets of bracken
ferns craning for sunlight where fallen trees created gaps.

The missing element is fire. In a healthier ecosystem, small, cool-burning fires clean up
dead trees and debris on a forest's floor. The trees grow farther apart, leaving more
room for diverse vegetation, which can support a wider variety of wildlife and allow more
water to drain into streams or percolate into aquifers.

When fires are kept out of forests, which has been the government's policy until recent
years, the debris collects, the trees crowd closer together and the forest becomes
vulnerable to catastrophic wildfires.

There is evidence of those natural patterns at Barney Spring, but the lack of natural fire
has obscured the clumping. Schneider and the other researchers are looking for clues
about how the forest grew before firefighting policies kept even the smallest fires out of
the property.

Fallen trees are evidence of fire's absence at Barney Spring, but they will also give up
information that fire would have destroyed. Researchers will collect core samples from
some of the dead pines and oaks, adding details that could help with restoration studies.

"On a landscape level, for restoration projects, we want to understand the natural
conditions," said Pete Fulé, managing director of the restoration institute. "But there's not
that much data available."

Fulé said the Barney Spring forest could play a role in the regional Four Forest
Restoration Initiative, which grew out of a forest-health group created by former Gov.
Janet Napolitano. The initiative will include thinning and restoration work on more than 2.4
million acres of forests in northern and central Arizona over more than 20 years.

One of the goals of that project is to preserve more old-growth pine trees, which
scientists say are essential to a healthy forest. The Barney Spring forest could lead to a
better understanding of how to maintain those old pines.

NAU is still working with the landowner about what, if any, restoration work might take
place, but Covington said the parcel is large enough to allow multiple experiments. Some
could look more closely at wildlife habitat, others at the watershed. Controlled fires would
likely be used to help clear the forest of dead trees and other debris.

Covington said he expects the study to reveal valuable information, but equally important
is the research legacy the work could leave. Forest maps and descriptions produced in
the early 1900s still help guide work today, and the data collected at Barney Spring could
prove just as useful decades from now.

"A lot of questions people will be asking in the future we can't even conceive of,"

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9/8/2010 Northern Arizona University researchers …
Covington said. "But they could be questions they couldn't answer without this data."

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Mark Henle/The Ari zona Republ ic

NAU research assistants Patrick Shin (left) and Kelsey


Adelmeyer take a core sample from a ponderosa pine.

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