NAU’s Ecological Restoration Institute talks forest health with Sen. Mark Kelly

Andrew Sánchez Meador and Mark Kelly

Northern Arizona University’s Ecological Restoration Institute (ERI) visited with Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly on Wednesday during a forest restoration field trip near Flagstaff. The senator flew up from Tucson to tour area forests and learn about forest health, wildfire history and the need for forest restoration in northern Arizona to prevent catastrophic wildfire and increase forest resilience to climate.

“It’s not every day that you get to have one-on-one time to talk restoration science with a senator—and an astronaut,” said Andrew Sánchez Meador, ERI’s executive director. “We’re lucky that the impact of our research can be demonstrated just a few miles from campus.”

Sen. Kelly was interested in learning about fire’s role on the landscape, recent area fires, like the Museum Fire in 2019 and the impacts of post-fire flooding. Staff from ERI, including Melanie Colavito, director of policy and communications, and Han-Sup Han, director of forest operations and biomass utilization, highlighted the role that ERI and NAU play in helping bridge rigorous scientific research on forest restoration to land management actions occurring throughout Arizona and the western United States.

ERI discussed the challenges of implementing large-scale forest restoration and hazardous fuels reduction treatments caused by the “biomass bottleneck”—when the forest products industry’s capacity is limited to using the small diameter materials and forest residues, resulting in a byproduct of forest restoration treatments.

The institute has been expanding and fostering partnerships throughout Arizona to address the biomass bottleneck through the development of a Forest Operations Training Center that will help to develop a forest restoration workforce. These growing partnerships highlight how investment in research can lead to economic development.

Faculty in ERI visited with the senator at a forest restoration site on the Coconino National Forest that was treated by The Nature Conservancy and Campbell Global as part of the Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI) project. They also visited and discussed the Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project, 4FRI and the 2019 Museum Fire. Partners from Coconino County, the City of Flagstaff and the Coconino National Forest were in attendance to discuss forest restoration efforts with the senator. The group spoke about the importance of partnerships in the region to advance forest restoration efforts.

After the tour, Sen. Kelly noted that forest restoration seems tougher than commanding a space shuttle.