Branch ManagerMary Stuever witnessed the worst fire disaster in Arizona history. She didn't leave with the firetrucks, though. Instead, she spent the next 5 years planting trees and restoring the fire-ravaged landscape.
By David Schwartz
White Mountains From the front lines, veteran forester Mary Stuever witnessed the devastation that was the Rodeo-Chediski Fire — a wind-whipped blaze that turned nearly a half-million acres of prime forest in East-Central Arizona into an ugly, blackened moonscape during the summer of 2002.
Stuever was touched deeply by the damage to the land and the impact on its people.
Then she decided to take matters into her own hands. She would spend the next 5 years working for the White Mountain Apache Tribe, planting trees and educating, and breathing new life into the fire-ravaged landscape for all to see.
"It was an amazing job," says Stuever, 51, who now lives in a log cabin made of Utah spruce near Albuquerque, New Mexico. "I went to bed every night knowing that I made a difference in someone's life or in restoring the land."
Her experiences in Arizona and the surrounding region are chronicled in a new book, The Forester's Log: Musings From the Woods, a collection of columns penned during a career that started when the fresh-faced youth became a ranger in New Mexico in 1978.
She would go on to hike 2,000 miles along the Continental Divide from New Mexico to Old Faithful in Yellowstone before graduating with a forestry degree from Oklahoma State University.
The outdoors were never far away from Stuever. She worked for state and federal agencies in Arizona and New Mexico and as a private consultant, spending time in the field and teaching about the ecosystems that make up the forests.
Her work continues today. Stuever is a forester in New Mexico. She's a firefighter. She remains passionate about what it takes to manage the vast acreage of forestland scattered throughout the Southwest.
"There has to be a long-term commitment," Stuever says. "There is no instant, overnight fix. And it requires a lot of resources that we haven't yet been given."
Stuever says the effort begins with responsible thinning of the nation's cluttered, thick forests. That includes using natural fires and prescribed burns as weapons in the fight.
"We've kept fire out of our forests for so long that the density is unnatural," she says. "We also have to go in and cut out trees. There's too much fuel out there."
But with all her concern comes hope — much like what she found upon her return to the scene of the Rodeo-Chediski Fire last year. Grass was taking hold; trees were stretching into the air.
"That's amazing stuff," she says. "It shows what can happen when you do things right."