Our initial attempt at joining climate-change science and art offers a compelling allegory for our desire to keep our eyes open to the darkness of what climate change may mean for this place, while also noticing the silver linings and working for a more sustainable, mutualistic relationship with our environment.
Collin Haffey just started his second year of graduate studies in the Master of Science program in Environmental Science and Policy at Northern Arizona University. This summer he conducted fieldwork around the Colorado Plateau and in Northern New Mexico. He studies the ecological community trends following stand-replacing fire. Kate Aitchison is an emerging artist, river runner, and Flagstaff native who studied art at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. During their first meeting, Collin and Kate visited one of Collin’s field sites, at the Horseshoe Fire just out side of Flagstaff, near Kendrick Peak in 1996. Collin tells the story that so many residents of the American West have heard—a fear of forest fires inspires an era of suppression policies, Smokey the Bear becomes a household name, fire is almost never tolerated, the Forest Service increasingly becomes a fire-fighting agency. Decades of fire suppression are layered upon regrowth from intensive timber harvest in the early 20th century. Trees reproduced unchecked by the historically frequent fire, accumulating to abnormal densities. Because of the massive build up of woody potential energy, when fires do burn, they burn hotter, bigger, and into the crown of the ponderosa stands. A burned area takes longer to bounce back, and in some cases, fires have become so severe that their impacts, in combination with climate change, mean that the plants that formerly occupied the area won’t come back—the landscape has been set on a new trajectory.
It’s a scary thought to dwell upon: that the beauty of Northern Arizona, characterized by expansive ponderosa pine forests could be in jeopardy, that it might look very different for the next generation. But Collin points out the Horseshoe fire is not just a tale of high severity and lasting impact, but also one that could offer us a glimpse of what the future may hold for this place. This future is one of resiliency, toward that most Western of ideals, moving forward and making the best of what we are given. The landscape is arguably made more resilient following stand replacing fires, we should learn from that lesson. We should pin our hope on the knowledge that, though it might be different, beauty will continue to be what defines Northern Arizona. It can also serve as a valuable lesson about the importance of forest management and what needs to change if we hope to preserve some of these irreplaceable forests.