Just outside of Coronado National Forest in southeastern Arizona, the mountaintop village of Summerhaven can breathe a sigh of relief. Thanks to the cooperation of the Forest Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the State of Arizona through shared stewardship, Summerhaven was able to avoid the devastation of the Bighorn Fire, which burned nearly 120,000 acres.
Broadly speaking, shared stewardship describes a framework where land managers commit to working together to solve problems that affect the entire landscape. In 2018, Coronado National Forest and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Fort Apache Agency signed a four-year interagency agreement for shared stewardship projects that maintain connections between Native American tribes and their ancestral lands. Partners work together to remove overgrown forest from lands important to tribes for gathering foods and medicines for cultural purposes.
The Catalina-Rincon FireScape project was one of these shared stewardship projects, and aimed to restore forest where fire suppression had led to overgrowth. Too many trees can fuel larger wildfires, which pose an increased threat to homes, ranches, recreation sites and areas considered sacred to Native American tribes. Reducing the number of trees in overgrown areas also means forests will do a better job of bouncing back following wildfires.
Part of the project also involved building treeless buffer areas, called fuel breaks, that stop or slow wildfire. Crews from Fort Apache worked from one end of the project on the national forest, while a crew from the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management did the same on private land. Working toward each other from opposite ends of the project area, they built a fire break on Mt. Lemmon to protect Summerhaven, which had been devastated by the Aspen Fire in 2003.
When lighting ignited the Bighorn Fire in June, it burned for seven weeks before being contained. It came right to the edges of Summerhaven and the fuel break intended to stop it. Firefighters faced steep, rugged terrain, stifling heat, and winds which pushed the fire in different directions and grounded firefighting aircraft.
Firefighters worked for weeks to protect the village, and their efforts paid off as they stopped the fire at the fuel break. The project did not stop the fire alone, but played a crucial role by providing a buffer between the Summerhaven and the blowing embers coming off the fire.
Shared stewardship in this case protected a vulnerable community with tribal members playing a key role in protecting lands that are so important to them. The Forest Service and the state of Arizona have already had numerous successes working together, but in July they also signed a formal Shared Stewardship agreement (PDF, 803 KB), further strengthening joint management efforts.