If you're going to live in the middle of the forest, you have a responsibility to that forest.
That's the message being delivered by Chris Jones, a University of Arizona extension agent assigned to Gila County. He believes Rim country residents need to become forest stewards -- not only to protect the forest, but to protect ourselves.
"The term ‘stewardship' means caring for the land, being a caretaker, so being a steward means you would have a knowledge of what a healthy forest is and help it to be in that condition," Jones said. It's especially important for people who moved here from somewhere else.
"A lot of people retire here and just want to have their own little space, but so much of what we need to know is different from what we grew up with," Jones said.
Some of the things people living in the Rim country need to know:
- "This is an arid forest. It looks green and it's not the desert, but it's more like Phoenix than it is like Oregon or Michigan."
- This is a dynamic forest. "Don't expect the static forest we see out there today," Jones said. "It's going to change and it needs to. We need to understand what we've created by suppressing wildfire -- we've created a forest that is not natural.
- How to cope with the constant danger of fire. "Fire should be happening in this ecosystem," Jones said. "It was built with fire, and we're never going to remove fire from it. It's always going to come back with a vengeance."
- "We need to be concerned about water -- water conservation, what plants do best without water."
- How to live with wildlife interaction. "People like having rabbits and all of this around their homes, but they hate when they eat their plants," Jones said.
- Recognize and adapt to the wide variety of microclimates in the Rim country. "In one place you're on a south facing slope, and you go over the top (of a hill) and you're on the north side -- no more than a half mile and you've got completely different growing areas," Jones said. "Those are site specific things people need to understand quickly so they can make good decisions."
While native plants are usually a wise choice for local gardeners, that's not always the case.
"A lot of native plants are fire prone," Jones said. "Manzanita has a flame length five times its height, so a manzanita five feet tall has a 40-foot flame length. That's not a wise choice for a hedge right next to your home.
"Plants don't have to be native, but they do have to be drought-tolerant."
To help deliver these messages, especially to the young people who will one day inherit the forest and its problems, Jones is heading up a Forest Stewardship Career Academy, July 21-25 at Gila Community College. The academy, open to anyone 13 to 18 years old, is designed to encourage young people to "develop the habits and personal commitment necessary to live in a firewise and healthy forest."
Academy content will include:
- An overview of the components forestry deals with -- the watershed, soils, wildlife, recreation, and fire management.
- "We'll spend a day going out (into the forest) identifying major species," Jones said, "starting with life zones -- chaparral, piñon, juniper, ponderosa pine, and a little bit of mixed forest on top of the Rim."
- "The next day we'll go into landscaping for fire and site assessment of a neighborhood -- what can be done to make a neighborhood safer from approaching fire," Jones said.
- "The last day will be an exercise in wildland-urban interface," Jones said.
Eventually there are plans to present the academy on a quarterly basis, and offer it or similar programs for adults. In the meantime, Jones is available to give presentations to civic groups, neighborhood associations and other groups that want to know more about forest stewardship.
He believes that it is a combination of the drought and a lack of information and understanding that got us to our present dilemma.
"One hundred years ago we didn't have a pine forest like we see today," Jones said. "We had 15, 20, 40 pine trees per acre. Now we've got 150 (to) 450.
"It was the use, disuse and abuse of our forestry and our fire and our grazing that brought us to this point, and it's going to be the knowledge that we have that will help to thin our forests back to a healthy point."
To register for the academy starting July 21, come to the GCC campus at 201 N. Mud Springs Road. For more information on the academy, call GCC at 468-8039 or visit the GCC website at www.gilaccc.org. Tuition is $75.
To schedule Jones to make a presentation to your group, call the Gila County Cooperative Extension at 928-425-7179.
(Next Tuesday: Forest Stewardship part 2, featuring specific steps you need to take to become a steward of the forest and to protect your home and family.)