FLAGSTAFF — The Navajo Nation will play a role in deciding how catastrophic fires can be avoided in Arizona.
Alex Becenti Sr., director of the Navajo Nation’s Division of Forestry, was recently appointed to the Arizona Governor’s Forest Health Oversight Council.
Becenti said he feels thinning of small, young trees can prevent catastrophic forest fires. He attended his first Governor’s Forest Health Oversight Council meeting July 30 at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.
Becenti, 38, said last year’s Rodeo-Chediski fire underlined the need to reduce hazardous fuels through thinning. He said small diameter trees in urban interfaces should be the first to be removed.
Becenti said three actions can be taken with the small removed trees:
• Market them as they can be used for small construction projects.
• Allow locals to use them for either wood burning or small construction projects.
• Chip them up and leave them at their locations so they can add nutrients to the soil.
Becenti said the discussion at the latest meeting focused on the lack of a market for the small diameter trees. On the positive side, Prescott National Forest was recognized for doing a good job of thinning around the urban interface.
Becenti said while Sierra Club representatives wanted to be better informed about Prescott National Forest thinning projects that they did not oppose all thinning projects.
Becenti said that nobody on the governor’s forest council has supported clear cutting or cutting old growth trees.
“The question is how to make it economical to cut the smaller trees. At some point, we need to make it more productive to treat the trees selectively,” he said.
Becenti said the only environmental organization that has taken the position that there should be no thinning is Dineh Care, and he added their position seems to be only toward the Navajo Nation forests.
He said the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity and other environmental groups want more clear reasons about what will be cut and why. He said these environmental groups also want the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Protection Act followed.
Becenti noted that the White Mountain Apache Tribe’s forestry division drew praise for treating their forest—and that was a key reason that the recent Kinishba fire did not spread to Pinetop and other communities.
Becenti learned of his nomination to the Governor’s Forest Health Oversight Council through the Navajo Nation President’s Office and later learned it was confirmed by a letter from Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano.
Becenti said his appointment will allow the Navajo Nation to voice its opinion on forest health.
“The Navajo Nation will voice its opinions and thoughts. Hopefully, we’ll come up with something that we can all benefit from so we can reduce catastrophic fires,” he said. “Our forest is different then a lot of others in Arizona because a lot of people live in our forest.”
The Governor’s Forest Health Oversight Council has about 15 members including representatives of the state land agency, Sierra Club, counties, White
Mountain Apache Tribe and Flagstaff Mayor Joe Donaldson. The council is chaired by Arizona State Rep. Tom O’Halloran.
The next Governor’s Forest Health Oversight Council meeting is set for Aug. 20 in Show Low. The council will meet about every three weeks.
Becenti said the Navajo Nation has been fortunate to avoid catastrophic fires. He said the Navajo Nation Division of Forestry has avoided large fires through fire suppression—mostly by having several lookouts and putting out fires as quickly as they start.
Becenti noted that BIA forestry is responsible for thinning but hasn’t done any for about 10 years. He said a forest plan is in place that could initiate thinning and prescribed burns.
As head of the Navajo Nation Division of Forestry, Becenti is responsible for managing 596,000 acres of forest and 4.8 million acres of Pinon/Juniper woodlands. He has a 25-member staff.
“I love my job because I get out in the field and get to walk in the woods,” he said.
Becenti’s budget includes $260,000 from the Navajo Nation general fund and $400,000 in contracts from the BIA.
“We do what we can with what we have. We take pride in what we do,” he said.
The Navajo Nation currently prohibits any fires. They are considering allowing ceremonial fires, but that has not yet been approved.
Becenti has been with the Navajo Nation Division of Forestry for the past 15 years, the last six as its director. He earned a bachelor of arts degree in forest management from Northern Arizona University, studying under Wally Covington.
“I’ve been interested in managing trees and land since I was a freshman in high school,” he said.
Becenti graduated from Tohatchi High School in Tohatchi, N.M.
Born in Ft. Defiance, he was raised in Tohatchi. He studied at Western New Mexico University in Silver City before finishing his college work at NAU. He spent summers working with the Navajo Fish and Wildlife Department before going to work for the Division of Forestry.