Columbine Cabin Owner’s Association President responds to lawsuit threat over Mount Graham red squirrel

Contributed Photo/Courtesy Rachel Bryce: Columbine Cabin Owner’s Association President Daryl Weech says poor management of the forest is to blame for habitat loss for the endangered Mount Graham red squirrel and the cabins provide a haven for them. The squirrels’ population was decimated after the 2017 Frye Fire.

Blames squirrels’ predicament on poor government handling of the forest

By Jon Johnson

MOUNT GRAHAM – On Thursday, Feb. 7, the Gila Herald posted an article detailing The Center for Biological Diversity’s filing of a notice of intent to sue to compel the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to expand critical habitat for the Mount Graham red squirrel. (Gila Herald: Lawsuit seeks expanded critical habitat for endangered Mount Graham red squirrel)

The Mount Graham red squirrel is one of 25 subspecies of red squirrels throughout North America and is only located in the Pinaleño Mountain Range in both the spruce-fir and mixed-conifer habitats from 7,800 feet to 10,720 feet. The species was thought to be extinct but were rediscovered in the 1970s and was added to the federal endangered species list in 1987 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service when the estimated population in 1986 was less than 400. An annual survey in 2018 showed the squirrel had rebounded from a low of just 35 after the devastating Frye Fire in 2017 to 75 in the most recent count. The fire burned roughly 48,433 acres of forest.

Contributed Photo/Courtesy Hunter Windsor: The lawsuit contends the cabins were supposed to have been removed as mitigation for the building of the Mt. Graham International Observatory.

In the Center’s press release, Robin Silver, co-founder and board member said that due to the widespread loss of the squirrel’s habitat due to the construction of the Mt. Graham International Observatory and Frye Fire in 2017, the squirrels “desperately need new habitat protection.” Silver suggested that the best remaining habitat is currently occupied by Bible Camp and the Columbine Cabins and said they were supposed to be already removed as mitigation for the telescopes but never were. 

The Gila Herald reached out to Columbine Cabin Owner’s Association President Daryl Weech about the issue, and the following is his response. 

“As president of the Columbine Cabin Owner’s Association, I would like to comment on the proposed lawsuit regarding the proposed expansion of the red squirrel habitat. The squirrels have always and continue to live amongst the cabins at Columbine. We have co-existed very well for 140 years. 

The threat to the population has come from the misdirected attempt to protect them by not allowing logging and manually cleaning up the forest. For many years, the government put out every fire on the mountain as was thought to be the best thing for the forest. We now know that this only resulted in an abnormal buildup of fuel, which results in catastrophic fires. 

The environmentalists have added to the situation by the mandate that the squirrels were found in a ‘trashy environment’ and must remain in such conditions to survive.

Contributed Photo/Courtesy Daryl Weech: Daryl Weech stands next to the historic Spencer W. Kimball tree after the Frye Fire passed through the area.

The thinking has resulted in a major portion of the mountain burning so hot that a good portion is now moonscape. The cabin area and Bible Camp are still green and intact because of the ongoing efforts to mitigate the fuel load in these areas. Several squirrels have historically lived within the tract. Removing the cabins and Bible Camp would result in the forest in this area becoming heavy in burnable fuel and would only be a matter of time before fire would blacken these areas also and be uninhabitable for not only the squirrels but all other wildlife as well. 

The generation that grew up in the late 1930s and 1940s have often commented that at that time, they were able to walk anywhere in the forest as the small fifes would clear the forest floor of fallen trees and excessive duff. Today, we are not able to do so due to the massive accumulation of fuel.

We have proposed for the past 30 years that since the squirrel had to learn to live in the horrible conditions they find themselves in today, due to man, that if we were to clean the forest and restore it to the condition it was in pre-fire suppression days, that the squirrel will adapt back to a beautiful clean forest and thrive. 

Contributed Photo/Courtesy Scott Waldron: The Columbine Cabins escaped major damage from the Frye Fire and continue to be populated with Mount Graham red squirrels.

The current policy has been, and remains, a recipe for continued disaster for not just one, but numerous species on the mountain. The policy that has cost we the people multi-millions in dollars to protect one species has resulted in millions of dollars being spent to suppress the wildfires and ultimately has caused the decline of the species, damaging the habitat for all species.”

  • Daryl Weech, President of the Columbine Cabin Owner’s Association