A Northern Arizona University forestry expert who was ahead of his time in urging communities across the West to thin dense stands of trees and set fire to the landscape as a way to ward off catastrophic wildfires has retired from his position at the school.
Members of Congress, state legislators, the U.S. Forest Service and countless others looked to Wally Covington for science-based advice on how to restore forests to a condition when natural fires regularly would burn the undergrowth and small trees.
Covington retired in late January as executive director of NAU’s Ecological Restoration Institute, which he founded, after about 45 years at the school. He started there as an assistant professor of forestry.
Covington, 73, told the Arizona Daily Sun that he plans to spend time in Flagstaff and in Oklahoma still working on forest restoration. He also hopes to work in South America and with Native American fire crews, he said.
Covington was on track to practice medicine after getting a bachelor’s degree but ditched the plan after a doctor told him people also need help enjoying life and to find his passion, he said. He graduated from Yale University with a doctorate from the forestry program.
The influence of medicine wasn’t lost on Covington. He has referred to western forests as a “patient” in need of saving and himself as an ecosystem health practitioner.
He was dismissed as an alarmist early on in his career when he warned that if forests were left untreated, wildfires could chew through hundreds of thousands of acres with small fires climbing into the treetops. It has happened in many places across the U.S. West.
“It may not be in your backyard yet, but it will be,” Covington said. “And that’s what I’m trying to get people to see.”
Historically, forests were relatively thin, with grass and wildflowers growing beneath the tree canopy. Covington pored over maps and photos, using the condition of the forest before settlers came in as a baseline model. Good science must be the starting point for restoration, he said.
Others argued that more information was needed before any work could be done and that Covington’s approach could open up forests to logging. But he advocated for quick action and funding to protect habitat for endangered and threatened species, water resources, human life and property.
A truce came in a contentious debate over tree-cutting with a consensus to preserve trees with 16-inch (41-centimeter) diameter trunks or larger.
“In the policy world you take barbs. You take spears,” said Diane Vosick, director of policy and partnerships at the Ecological Restoration Institute. “And a lot of people just don’t want to do that. He’s taken spears from multiple sides, but he’s been willing to continue to hold the line on what needs to happen.”
Covington and his colleagues at NAU designed experiments that paved the way for large-scale projects, like the Four Forest Restoration Initiative in Arizona — the largest project of its kind in the U.S. Forest Service. It eventually will cover 3,750 square miles along a prominent line of cliffs that divides Arizona’s high country from the desert.
Covington testified before Congress and served on an Arizona legislative advisory committee to recommend and implement policies on forest conditions.
He said the Ecological Restoration Institute will need a leader who will stay ahead of the curve, taking on questions about wildfires and forest ecology in the face of climate change — and listening to various points of view.
Pete Fulé, one of Covington’s former students, said he appreciated Covington’s constant search for new ideas.
“The work that Wally has done is extremely valuable to try to help us position ourselves, but it would not be wise to think that now the problem is solved, because it’s not,” Fulé said.