NAU students help protect struggling aspen
The Northern Arizona University Forestry Club has teamed with the Kaibab National Forest to maintain the forest's aspen fences that help protect the struggling trees.
The students recently helped Kaibab Forester Woody Rokala reconstruct and stabilize a fence near Bellemont.
"The forestry club has been participating in aspen fencing projects since 2005, but this is our first year collaborating with the Kaibab National Forest," said recent NAU graduate Mike French, who is now working for the Forest Service.
Aspen is one of the most common and proliferate high-elevation deciduous trees in North America.
Yet in recent years, much of the aspen in the western United States has declined dramatically and inexplicably.
In the past 10 years, the Kaibab National Forest has seen 60 percent to 95 percent mortality in low-elevation aspen.
To promote aspen survival, forest managers on the Kaibab National Forest are fencing some aspen stands to limit browsing by ungulates.
"Heavy elk and deer browsing on new aspen sprouts on the southern Kaibab National Forest has eliminated almost all of the new sprouts that have attempted to develop in declining aspen stands," Kaibab Silviculturist Mark Herron said. "This has seriously impeded the ability of these declining stands to regenerate and perpetuate aspen across the forest."
Aspen fences are designed to protect aspen seedlings and sprouts from being eaten by elk and deer. In the West, these fences are common and important tools to promote the survival of aspen.
The Kaibab National Forest has built 32 fences, but to successfully exclude elk and other ungulates, the fences require continued maintenance and repair.
The NAU Forestry Club volunteers twice a year to repair aspen fences for the Forest Service.
"This tradition has been quite beneficial to the students at Northern Arizona University," said Michael Gould, 2009-10 forestry club president. "It has allowed students to acquire experience and knowledge of local conservation practices in addition to the chance to communicate with local Forest Service employees."
On the recent visit to the Kaibab, club members spent time repairing a section of fence destroyed by a fallen tree. The majority of the large ponderosa pine trees had already been salvaged, but students had to remove a cross-section of the bole that was still obstructing the fence perimeter.
They stretched new fencing wire across the opening and secured it with tree-limb fence posts and wire. In some areas, the fence was in good enough shape that only minor repairs were necessary.
The Kaibab National Forest provided tools and materials for the day.
"It was great to be able to work on a project that will impact the future of the aspen in northern Arizona," NAU forestry student Kari Potter said. "It was especially good to see all of the regeneration."
Although many of the larger aspen trees were dead or dying, there was some thriving regeneration within the fenced area - a bright spot in the aspen decline story.