Now more than six months since the Bighorn Fire charred 120,000 acres of the Santa Catalina Mountains, and reconstruction efforts are still underway. The US Forest Service is working to combat soil erosion, restore watersheds and wildlife habitats, and increase the safety of more than 100 miles of recreational trails. To expedite the process, the National Forest Foundation (the US Forest Service’s nonprofit partner) has created the Southern Arizona Forest Fund, where locals can donate to the cleanup effort.
Much of the soil stabilization work that NFF will support in the Coronado National Forest will take place on trails and adjacent areas. Trails, both official and unauthorized, that are impacted by wildfire are often a conduit for sediment and soil erosion, creating deep gullies, vegetation degradation, and can gather invasive species and damage watersheds.
“By putting resources into trail restoration, we can minimize erosion, create additional soil stability, increase safety and access, and improve the user experience,” said Rebecca Davidson, NFF’s Southwest region director. “Across the Coronado, we are also undertaking proactive restoration including woodland-oak habitat improvement and fire risk reduction projects that by minimizing fire impacts we can reduce the impact from soil erosion and sediment transport into our streams and water systems.”
One of the aspects that made the Bighorn Fire so difficult to quell in its early days is also impeding the restoration process: the Catalinas’ rugged terrain. The Forest Service says access to some areas can be difficult, even in the best conditions. These crags and canyons can contain a large amount of invasive species like buffelgrass that made the wildfire so damaging to the desert ecosystem.
According to Davidson, the idea behind the Southern Arizona Forest Fund was conceived a few years ago when the NFF began coordinating restoration and project work with the Coronado National Forest. In addition to the Bighorn Fire restoration, the NFF is working on other Southern Arizona efforts, including fire risk reduction in Sierra Vista and Safford.
“While we are not able to collect donations for every fire, we work to identify priority landscapes, key opportunities, and then find ways to strategically support the needs,” Davidson said. “We are generally looking for opportunities where the Forest Service requires additional support for post-fire restoration, and where NFF can leverage donations with other grants and funding.”
In addition to fire restoration, the Southern Arizona Forest Fund also supports local youth conservation programs, including hands-on trail stewardship and education tied to ecosystem health and fire ecology in the Sonoran desert and Southern Arizona’s sky islands.
“Regardless of where we work, we always work with local partners. We really want to leverage resources in the local community, so if it’s a restoration process, we want to contract with local contractors or grants to local nonprofits to do the work on the ground,” Davidson said. “And the same is true with our youth program. We’re working with local partners who already have a great network and are looking for opportunities to grow the program that gives kids the opportunity to get outside… We’re always looking for opportunities to build a pipeline of future advocates for national forests and public lands.”
To help support the fundraising, Tucson desert painter Diana Madaras provided 25 of her matted art prints to go to the first 25 individuals who contribute $100 or more. The NFF also partnered with Visit Tucson after realizing they “had shared goals of protecting and conserving the landscape surrounding the Tucson community.”
“Visit Tucson is pleased to partner with this initiative to safely reopen trails and enhance outdoor experiences for residents and visitors from around the world,” said Vanessa Bechtol, vice president of strategic initiatives at Visit Tucson. “With roughly 25% of visitors to the forest coming from more than 500 miles away, Coronado National Forest’s trails are an important tourism attraction and economic driver for metro Tucson.”
The Southern Arizona Forest Fund aims to raise $30,000 before the 2021 fire season, though ecologists predict this summer’s potential fires will not be as severe in the Catalinas due to the Bighorn’s recent largescale burns.
“The Forest Service is using all available resources to respond to post-fire needs,” said Coronado National Forest Supervisor Kerwin Dewberry in a press release. “The Bighorn Fire has impacted local residents, businesses, and visitors. Individuals and organizations stepping up to support the Southern Arizona Forest Fund add critical capacity to our ability to respond to the needs of the Tucson-area community, and to the landscape itself.”
NFF is a 501(c)3 tax-exempt organization and donations are tax deductible. Donations are also accepted by businesses and by check. For every $1 that is donated, $0.85 will go to on-the-ground restoration efforts. For more information, visit nationalforests.org