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Reforestation efforts restore a scarred Tribal landscape

StrikeForce Landing


Daniel Kessay, with the White Mountain Apache Tribal forestry department and Jan Pertruzzi with NRCS

Daniel Kessay, with the White Mountain Apache Tribal forestry department and Jan Pertruzzi with NRCS in Whiteriver, Ariz., review plans for ponderosa pine tree plantings.

Mack Nosie, with the White Mountain Apache Tribe forestry department, uses a hoedad to dig a hole fo

Mack Nosie, with the White Mountain Apache Tribe forestry department, uses a hoedad to dig a hole for a ponderosa pine seedling in the shade of a burned tree stump, which protects the seedling from windy conditions that dry the trees.

By Beverly Moseley

Standing 6,000 feet on top of Limestone Ridge, the scars of a massive wildfire on Arizona’s White Mountain Apache Reservation in east central Arizona are still visible. As far as the eye can see are bare mountain ranges where century-old ponderosa pines once stood.

A decade ago, the Rodeo-Chediski fire burned more than 270,000 acres and an estimated 80 million trees, leaving behind few pine trees to help seed the beginnings of a new forest.

“There is no seed source out here for the tree to establish again out here. So, one of the main things that we are doing in helping Mother Nature along is by artificially getting trees out here,” said Daniel Keesay, field operations manager for the White Mountain Apache forestry department.

Experts estimate it could take planting 750,000 trees over 20 years to completely reforest the burned areas to historic levels. Tackling a reforestation project of this scope is expensive, time consuming and labor intensive. The White Mountain Apache Tribe’s forestry department and the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service are working together to restore native ponderosa pines to a portion of the reservation’s scarred landscape.

The Tribe is one of many across the U.S. that has received financial assistance through the USDA’s StrikeForce for Rural Growth and Opportunity. This Tribe received assistance to plant 168 acres of ponderosa pine seedlings on Limestone Ridge.

The StrikeForce initiative addresses high-priority funding and technical assistance needs in rural communities in 20 states, including Arizona, with a special emphasis on historically underserved producers and communities in designated counties with persistent poverty.

This restoration process will not only help re-establish some of the Tribe’s commercial timber sources and ensure pine forest for generations to come, it also will provide needed habitat for wildlife.

Jan Pertruzzi, NRCS district conservationist in Whiteriver, Ariz, has worked closely with the Tribe through StrikeForce

“These tax payer dollars are being very well spent. We hope for a very high success rate,” Pertruzzi said. “Again, it depends on Mother Nature a lot of times. This funding enables conservation to be put on the land, and the people are getting a benefit from it.”

StrikeForce provides an opportunity for landowners who have not traditionally worked with NRCS, such as tribes like the White Mountain Apache, to determine how to best leverage available financial assistance. Several other tribes are making improvements to their lands through StrikeForce.

For example, in Utah, NRCS and the Navajo Nation Department of Agriculturehelped two chapters of the Navajo Nation drill new livestock wells and safely decommission unusable, contaminated wells through StrikeForce. 

Before the new wells were installed, members of the Teec Nos Pos and Red Mesa chapters had to truck in water from up to two hours away for their 1,000 or so cattle. NRCS is also helping the chapters install pipeline and troughs to provide multiple access points for cattle to drink.

“As far as our priority concern that we have for our community, the way we want to see in the future – five,10,20 years down the line for our new generation – is to have better water quality to meet the needs of our livestock,” said Herman Farley, president of the Red Mesa Chapter.

In New Mexico, Santo Domingo Pueblo residents worked with NRCS to save water by improving soil health through conservation practices such as rotating crops and planting cover crops. Healthy soil retains more moisture, allowing for less water to be applied during irrigation.

StrikeForce also helped the tribe installed an efficient underground water irrigation system to replace some of the aging earthen irrigation ditches to 50 fields that stretched across more than 200 acres.

“We’re now studying another area just south of our village to consider putting in a similar irrigation system for about 300 more acres,” said Jonathan Garcia, Water Resources Manager for the Pueblo.. “On a scale of 1 to 10, the project’s success has been an 11.”

StrikeForce is creating conservation opportunities in rural communities and tribes across the nation. Learn more.