Dense Forests, Encroached Meadows, and Devastating Wildfires

How Audubon and the Arizona Elk Society work together to protect rivers in the West.

The Audubon-led Western Rivers Action Network (WRAN) is a diverse group of stakeholders—hunters, anglers, outdoor enthusiasts, and birders come together under a common banner to promote sound water and natural resource policies that protect rivers and habitat for wildlife and people.

Forests and their surrounding watersheds are the origin of many rivers in the West, so caring about rivers means caring about forest health and restoration policy. Past fire suppression policies in the early 1900s created severely overgrown forests (previously, lower intensity wildfires were a common occurrence and would have naturally thinned forests). Throw in a nearly 20-year drought with a lot of fuel to burn and catastrophic wildfires have made conditions in the forests all the more precarious.

An ongoing effort in Arizona called the Four Forests Restoration Initiative (4FRI) cleared the way for critical restoration work to occur. At the forefront is WRAN leader Steve Clark, Executive Director of the Arizona Elk Society. With an army of dedicated volunteers and funding partners, and in close collaboration with the United States Forest Service, the Arizona Elk Society prioritizes its forest restoration efforts around riparian meadows.

The Arizona Elk Society works with partners to restore riparian meadows through thinning of adjacent trees, and by installing erosion control structures to prevent the silting of downstream creeks and rivers. This helps protect water quality.

“We slow the water flow so the water tables can rise to provide needed moisture throughout the year for the health of the meadow, and to increase the forage needed for the wildlife,” Clark said. “The end result of all the work that the Arizona Elk Society does in the riparian meadows is more clean water gets to the rivers without damaging an ecosystem through erosion.”

In one weekend alone, volunteers contributed 1900 hours at the Long Valley Riparian Meadow in the Coconino National Forest. The intention of the forest restoration work is to rebuild the ecosystem of a riparian meadow back to a more natural state.

As to what is next in forest health and restoration, Clark said: “4FRI learned lessons from its first phase that can help better plan for forest treatments in phase two.”

He believes that the Forest Service realized they need to be more strategic and complete tasks more quickly.

Evaluating the effects of a forest restoration treatment is important, Clark added, “There is a noticeable difference in one year, and the Forest Service is installing devices to measure the increase in [surface water] flows and in the water table. There is now a focus on monitoring the impacts of the restoration work itself.”