It was quite the year for environmental and conservation news across northern Arizona.
Heavy snows early on in Flagstaff and across the West granted many communities a respite from wildfire, and provided a greatly needed flush of water into the Colorado River.
But while it is almost certain that respite from the most extreme drought and fire risk was only temporary, one act of the presidential pen gave permanent protection to nearly a million acres around the Grand Canyon.
Biden proclaims monument
In August, President Joe Biden stood before Red Butte, deeply sacred to the Havasupai Tribe, and spoke to a gathering of local officials and tribal members. With one mark of the pen, Biden declared the creation of Arizona’s 19th national monument, the Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni – Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument.
The act came after years of work on the part of local tribes and conservation advocates, placing close to 1 million acres of federal land surrounding the Grand Canyon under protection.
President Biden creates historic new Grand Canyon monument during visit to northern Arizona
The move occured somewhat suddenly. It was only in April that the Grand Canyon Tribal Coalition, made up of 14 tribes with historic and cultural connections with the landmark, began a renewed push for protections.
But this time, federal officials seemed to take those efforts more seriously. In May, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland visited several northern Arizona tribes and heard testimony regarding the need for additional protections. Just months later, officials from the departments of Interior and Agriculture held a forum in Flagstaff, hearing from several tribal leaders and members of the public.
The creation of the monument was seen as an important milestone in preserving not only the Canyon, but areas used by local tribal members for important cultural practices. It was also viewed as a strike against uranium mining, which has long been controversial across northern Arizona and near the Grand Canyon.
Even so, the act did not put a complete stop to uranium mining near the Canyon, with at least one mine still holding valid rights and thus grandfathered in within the monument area.
Congressional wildfire commission
For the last several years, wildfire has been a growing threat for Flagstaff and many other communities across the West and even beyond. In September, a federal commission said that threat had reached crisis levels, releasing 148 recommended policy changes and proposed initiatives to tackle the issue.
The Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission, which included two local representatives from the City of Flagstaff and Coconino County amongst its 52 experts, addressed everything from workforce challenges to the encouragement of more proactive fire mitigation measures.
After wildfire commission recommendations, locals lobby Congress
But the recommendations came at a time that may have highlighted the challenges associated with federal action to help solve the issue. As the commission sent its report to congressional offices, Congress was hurtling the country toward a government shutdown.
In the end, that shutdown was avoided with the passage of a temporary budget. But the event acted as an apt metaphor for a predicament that will require congressional action to solve.
Tunnel Fire investigation
In April of 2022, 50 mph winds whipped through the Tunnel Fire, carrying the blaze from the foothills of Mount Elden to the front doors of residents. By the time it was wrestled under control, the fire had covered 19,000 acres, forcing thousands of residents to evacuate and destroying over 30 homes.
But one question had remained for those impacted. How had the fire started? And after fire officials had reported it largely contained, how had it gotten out of control?
Reflecting on Tunnel Fire operations, fire managers wrestle with ‘unsatisfying answers’
In July, and after 15 months of investigation on the part of the U.S. Forest Service, residents were given the unsatisfying answer: “undetermined.” The result dismayed many residents who said they had lost trust in the Forest Service.
While the investigation stated the fire was likely human-caused, it did not find conclusive evidence of what had caused the fire, and did not appear to address how the fire had seemingly blown up after appearing subdued.
Release of the investigation did finally allow local officials to speak openly about the fire, after a long period of mandated silence. In speaking with the Arizona Daily Sun, those fire officials insisted there was no detectable heat or smoke when firefighters left the scene the night before the blow up. By the time it blew up, weather conditions were so extreme that little could be done to counter it, they said.
Fed field office focused on mine cleanup
July saw the opening of a new Environmental Protection Agency field office in Flagstaff, one dedicated to cleaning up more than 100 abandoned uranium mines across the Navajo Nation.
The office, on the campus of the U.S. Geological Survey near Buffalo Park, hopes to work with the Navajo Nation to address 110 contaminated mines within the next 10 years.
Throughout the Cold War and the nuclear arms race, nearly 30 million tons of uranium ore were extracted from hundreds of mines on Navajo lands, more than 500 of which were abandoned by their owners and remain contaminated. The issue of abandoned mines has long been a threat to public health across the Navajo Nation but cleanup efforts have been slow.
The COVID-19 pandemic had put nearly a complete stop to the cleanup effort as the Navajo Nation was hit hard by the virus.
EPA Pacific Southwest Regional Administrator Martha Guzman told the Arizona Daily Sun they are prioritizing cleanup of mines nearest to communities, saying the office represented a “commitment” to solve the issue.
Colorado River high flow experiment
Heavy snows across the Mountain West last winter allowed officials with the Department of Interior and Bureau of Reclamation to approve a historic high-flow experiment on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon in April.
As engineers at Glen Canyon Dam released a higher flow of water from Lake Powell, researchers and river runners watched in anticipation of the effects. It was the first time in over a decade that a high-flow had been approved during the spring season. The flow of water peaked at about 39,500 cubic feet per second for about 72 hours.
Normally, release from Glen Canyon Dam ranges between 8,000 to 25,000 CFS.
The flow was largely designed to sweep sand and sediment downstream and rebuild beaches along the 200-mile span of the Colorado River between Lake Powell and Lake Mead.
But researchers were also interested to see the impacts of the flow on the river ecosystem, from insects to native and invasive fish such as humpback chub and rainbow trout.
Grand Falls closed
In March, residents of the Leupp Chapter community on the Navajo Nation made a grassroots effort to close off access to Grand Falls, Adah’iilíní in Dine, to all outsiders.
The falls, which become a spectacular flow of chocolate-colored water plunging 185 feet after rains or snowmelt swell the Little Colorado River, had become a popular tourist destination. But local residents said it was for that reason the area had to be protected.
Locals described how visitors had disrespected and damaged the area, leaving overflowing piles of trash, alcohol containers and damaging the surrounding area by driving off-road. Other local residents described visitors starting illegal campfires, flying drones over private homes and drunkenly knocking on doors in the middle of the night.
All that led members of the Leupp Chapter community to create a blockade of sandstone boulders and install signs reading “road closed.”
Although the falls don’t fall under any official protected designation, the community’s efforts were supported by the Navajo Nation Parks organization.
And the event highlighted growing concerns over the impact increased visitation, often encouraged through social media, can put natural and sacred landscapes at risk across northern Arizona and the West.
Record snows lead to light fire season
It was a wild year for weather in northern Arizona. But perhaps due to that, it was light year for wildfire. Although it was not uncommon for the skies over Flagstaff to be filled with smoke, that was largely due to controlled burns and managed fires.
Much of that was a result of record snows received early in the year, totaling 97.9 inches by mid-February. That snow was followed by spring, almost monsoon-like rains that drenched forests and pushed the fire season back by about a month. Indeed, it was not till late June that fire restrictions were implemented across the Coconino and Kaibab national forests. And forest closures were avoided altogether.
Instead, the work of firefighters was one mainly of drip-torches as they burning several thousands of acres to reduce fire risk and restore forest health across the region, and at times even within the boundaries of Flagstaff.
Of course, the sight of residents piling sandbags along the Rio de Flag, or alternatively pulling out their kayaks, was also the result of that snow.
As the snowpack melted, many areas of west Flagstaff experienced flooding and water swelled within upper and lower Lake Mary. The lake even restored its historic lake-bed when water broke through a levee and flooded a forest road.
The Arizona Department of Transportation and Arizona Game and Fish got one step closer to constructing a new network of northern Arizona wildlife overpasses earlier this month. The news came after the federal government awarded a $24 million grant to help design and construct an overpass on Interstate 17 several miles south of Flagstaff.
State officials said the effort represents just one of three wildlife overpasses they hope to build connecting habitats across I-17 and I-40. Such overpasses, primarily designed to help elk, may also find use by deer and pronghorn. And by providing easier and safer access across major roads, the overpasses would likely help restore natural migration patterns and increase habitat for wildlife, state scientists said.
Additionally, wildlife such as elk would pose less of a risk to drivers without the need to cross the road at-grade.
Reflecting on Tunnel Fire operations, fire managers wrestle with ‘unsatisfying answers’
The grant will help construct an overpass in the area of Willard Springs. Even so, it is likely to take several more years of work before the first bucket of concrete is poured.
Observatory mesa recreation plan
Throughout the year, Flagstaff city staff continued to develop a new recreation plan for Observatory Mesa — which could lead to the development of new trails across over 2,000 acres owned by the city, Coconino National Forest and Lowell Observatory.
Throughout the summer, staff hosted listening sessions with residents and local stakeholders, and solicited public comment on the plan. In addition to new trails designed largely for biking and hiking, staff said they also hope to close several unofficial community trails in the area that cut through ecologically sensitive areas.
Throughout the effort, one big question has been whether electric bikes would be permitted to use the trails. Such devices are generally not allowed on forest service controlled trails.
The effort comes as the demand for outdoor recreation has steadily increased over the years, and exploded during the COVID-19 pandemic as residents and visitors alike sought outdoor activities.
Solar plant construction
Northwest of Flagstaff, work began this year to construct what will be the state’s largest solar plant to date.
The plant, located on Babbitt Ranch land, is expected to cover 2,400 acres and offset about 1 billion pounds of carbon dioxide while providing electricity to 80,000 homes.
The project comes as a partnership between Babbitt Ranches and the Salt River Project (SRP), and is designed to help SRP meet its goal of providing 50% of its customers with carbon-free energy by 2025.
The project also comes as renewable energy has become an increasingly attractive option for ranchers across the country looking to supplement their livestock business by allowing the installation of solar panels and wind turbines on their lands.