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Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project Ramps Up

Ryan Heinsius

A new phase of mechanical tree thinning launched this week on the Coconino National Forest. It’s part of the Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project to help prevent catastrophic wildfire. As Arizona Public Radio’s Ryan Heinsius reports, crews are constructing almost four miles of logging roads. 

Forest managers plan to treat about a thousand acres of dense ponderosa pine forest in the Dry Lake Hills area. The road will allow logging trucks to haul out large-diameter trees cut by heavy machinery. Smaller ponderosas will be cut by hand.

Credit Ryan Heinsius
A bulldozer carves out a road near the Schultz Creek Trail as part of the Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project. It follows another logging road built decades ago. Officials will create nearly four miles of temporary roads for the project.

“These areas, with the absence of fire for over a 100 years, have become much too thick, and if a fire was to occur in this area you’d have really devastating results,” says Mike Elson, Flagstaff District Ranger for the Coconino. “This allows us to get started and it is a high priority area right next to the community.”

Credit Ryan Heinsius
A water truck wets the freshly cut logging road in the Coconino National Forest as part of the Watershed Protection Project.

Elson says a wildfire could threaten Flagstaff’s water supply and cause widespread flooding in the city. 

Credit Ryan Heinsius
Matthew Millar, operations specialist with the Flagstaff Fire Department, walks a newly constructed road in the Coconino National Forest Tuesday.

The Watershed Protection Project is a voter-approved initiative. It passed after the 2010 Schultz Fire and subsequent flooding in neighborhoods on the eastern base of the San Francisco Peaks. Mechanized thinning is slated to begin in August. Crews will treat more than 15,000 acres over the next decade.

Ryan Heinsius joined the KNAU newsroom as executive producer in 2013 and was named news director and managing editor in 2024. As a reporter, he has covered a broad range of stories from local, state and tribal politics to education, economy, energy and public lands issues, and frequently interviews internationally known and regional musicians. Ryan is an Edward R. Murrow Award winner and a Public Media Journalists Association Award winner, and a frequent contributor to NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and national newscast.
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