On his first visit to Flagstaff, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said he was struck by the ability to reverse the declining health of forests through treatments such as those deployed by Northern Arizona University’s Ecological Restoration Institute.

Johanns toured the Gus Pearson Natural Area in the Fort Valley Experimental Forest northwest of Flagstaff today with U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and representatives of NAU, the U.S. Forest Service, the Greater Flagstaff Forests Partnership and the city of Flagstaff.

“The condition of our forests is not very good, if you want to be candid about it,” Johanns said, citing overgrown conditions. “You can reverse the problems…but it’s going to take some effort, some patience and some money.”

On the issue of funding, Kyl announced the Senate Appropriations Committee unanimously approved the 2007 Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations bill, which includes $2.7 million for NAU’s Ecological Restoration Institute. The bill now goes to conference committee for vetting.

“I’m hoping we will continue to get that kind of funding,” said Kyl, noting that restoring healthy forests will cost more than what has been appropriated previously.

Wally Covington, director of the Ecological Restoration Institute, guided a tour of ERI’s restoration project in the Gus Pearson Natural Area, the oldest experimental forest in the United States. It also is the site of the ERI’s oldest ecological restoration treatments.

The ERI began treatments in 1994 to restore the site to pre-Anglo-European settlement conditions by reducing the tree density. Covington said there were between 20 and 30 trees per acre before 1876, but by the 1930s, the number of trees increased to more than 1,200 trees per acre due primarily to fire suppression and grazing. The large number of trees outcompeted grasses, reduced plant diversity and increased the forest’s susceptibility to unnatural catastrophic fire, bark beetles and disease.

“In the 1940s and ’50s, the old trees started dying because of competition from all the younger trees,” said Covington. “After treatment, the old growth trees started growing like teenagers.”

Covington said the thinning treatments also increased the grasses and the soil moisture and nutrients. “In general, we saw a real burgeoning of diversity at the site.”

He also told the group that “just thinning some trees is not enough.” The maximum benefits of restoring forests and avoiding catastrophic fire come from full restoration efforts to restore natural tree density.

“Cooperation has been the key to our success in forest restoration,” said Covington, citing the efforts of the Coconino National Forest, the USFS Rocky Mountain Research Station and city of Flagstaff.

“You’re to be applauded for that,” Johanns said. “You’re seeing a healthy forest come of it.”

Coconino National Forest Supervisor Nora Rasure was on hand to describe their success in reducing by one-half the fire hazard of the 100,000-acre wildland-urban interface that surrounds Flagstaff. Steve Gatewood of the Greater Flagstaff Forests Partnership shared information about the community wildfire protection plan for Flagstaff and surrounding communities in the Coconino and Kaibab national forests.

Prior to the tour of the Gus Pearson Natural Area, Johanns and Kyl flew over the Brins Fire that burned just outside Sedona.

“That’s been our worst nightmare,” Covington said of the type of catastrophic fire that could burn up from Oak Creek Canyon to the rim and into Flagstaff.