By Martin Anaya
My family’s been living in the San Francisco Peaks area for three generations and the forest is everything to us. All my life my family would tell stories of the time they spent out on the land. One of my grandfathers was a logger and spent his entire career in the forest. There’s even a legend about a huge mule deer buck my grandpa got at Schultz Pass back in the 40’s. Personally, I’m an avid bow hunter, hiker, and mountain biker. I’m out there all the time. I even combine my mountain biking and hunting, since most of the forest is closed to cars. It’s great exercise. And while it’s an amazing place for my wife, Anita, and I to recreate, the forest is also part of our livelihood. Anita and I were married on its western slope. We hunt for food, we all rely on firewood as a source of heat and escape our life’s stresses in its wilderness. Like I said, it’s everything to us.
On June 20th, when the fire broke out, my wife and I were on our way to enjoy a round of golf and we saw a puff of smoke. I told her that it didn’t look good and by the time we got to our tee, it was huge.
I work in the natural gas utility business and I immediately started getting calls from emergency management of Coconino County. I have contacts at the Forest Service and some of them were driving straight through the fire to get out its way. Our network of communication was fast and I left the golf course immediately. Not only was it professionally necessary, the fire also threatened a rather large subdivision, including our home.
It took 11 days to contain the fire and, in the end, 15,000 acres on the east side of the San Francisco peaks were burned to the ground. I cried like a baby. That whole forest I spent so much time in – including a spot that was very special to me personally – it was all destroyed. To know all those years of creation was gone was devastating.
The intensity of the burn was so hot, the soil became hydrophobic, almost like glass, and it no longer absorbed water. And, it happened just before monsoon season. Two weeks after the fire was out, the first rains came. It was unimaginable. Water, soil, trees, and boulders came off the mountain and went through the neighborhoods. People saw 4 foot walls of mud coming at them. It was traumatizing. The approaching floodwaters and debris sounded like a train coming down the track. And that was just the first one. We experienced 25 flooding events that summer.
Our home turned out to be okay from the fire and the subsequent flooding but, just like so many others, we were affected significantly with utilities being washed out time and time again. There were constant service interruptions. The infrastructure damage was incredible. Every time it flooded, I’d be out there helping protect my home, my neighbors’ homes, and our natural gas infrastructure. Volunteers came in too, and there were hundreds of us stacking sandbags together. It restores your faith in humanity.
The Department of Public Works in Coconino County implemented an innovative restoration plan that was spearheaded by County Supervisor Liz Archuleta. She is the first Hispanic female to serve on the County Board of Supervisors, and I know that her ancestral connection to the land inspired her to go above and beyond to protect this community and restore this forest for future generations. We need more Latino elected officials like Liz who have a strong conservation ethic and are willing to step up and play a leadership role as stewards of the environment and our public lands.
It’s been almost 7 years and the forest is coming back, but only because of the dedication of Liz, the Department of Public Works in Coconino County, and the community as a whole. In many of these situations, once people and property are protected, everybody goes on their way and the scorched earth is left as is. Here, they decided to attempt to restore the forest. The community even voted to raise taxes to help fund the effort. And it worked. In just a few years, they did what would have taken Mother Nature 75-100 years.
Now, we have in front of us an opportunity which not many people get to witness – a brand new ecosystem unfolding. It’s amazing to me to see the recovery. I spend a lot of time up there now – maybe even more than before. I’m curious and fascinated by it.
It was once a forest of coniferous trees and old growth, and now it’s brand new with Aspens taking over that are already 15 feet high in some areas. Before, the Aspens were maybe 5% density in the forest and now they’re going to be around 95%. The grasses and the vegetation are totally different. The animals are thriving. There are more elk than ever – it’s awesome. Our restoration efforts really worked. There was so much effort to plant ponderosa pine seedlings, and sometimes now I run into a volunteer sapling. I think it’s really cool and when I see one, I mark the spots and water them often.
That forest provided so much to my family for generations. Now, it’s my generation’s turn to be stewards of this rebirth, so future generations can enjoy it as well.