Interconnected: Healthy Habitats and Clean Water

What do wild turkeys and the town of Payson, Arizona have in common? This is a question you have probably never thought about. But, it does illustrate how Arizonans, wild turkeys, other wildlife and the overall forest health in the Coconino National Forest are all mutually benefitting from the NWTF’s involvement in the Cragin Watershed Protection Project.

About 13 years ago, the town of Payson and multiple partners were beginning to construct a pipeline and water treatment center that would provide drinking water from the C.C. Cragin Reservoir to both Payson residents and smaller surrounding communities. In 2018, the project was completed and drinking water from the reservoir was made accessible to thousands. However, a substantial, clean water supply begins with a healthy, resilient forest.

“A lot of people are unaware how much of our drinking water comes from a healthy forest,” said Patt Dorsey, NWTF director of conservation operations for the West. “There’s a great quote by Gifford Pinchot, who founded the U.S. Forest Service in 1905: ‘The relationship between forests and rivers is like father and son. No father, no son.’”


Unfortunately—due to decades of fire suppression and forest mismanagement, exacerbated by climate change— the surrounding forests that supply the C.C. Cragin Reservoir with water are overly dense, making these forests more at risk for catastrophic wildfire, erosion and flooding, all of which can severely disrupt water pumping operations, degrade the quality of water and even leave thousands without reliable water.

The Cragin Watershed Protection Project was designed to ensure this valuable water supply remains healthy and accessible, while simultaneously restoring the overall forest structure to its historic, fire-adapted state, which, in turn, creates a balanced ecosystem for the wildlife that inhabit this unique part of Arizona.

The Cragin Watershed Protection Project will achieve its ambitious goal by diversifying forest structure, reducing tree densities and reducing low-growing vegetation on up to 37,000 acres. These accomplishments will be achieved through science-based forest management techniques, including selective logging, mastication and prescribed burning, among others. This will keep the inevitable wildfire from consuming more acreage and from burning so hot it sterilizes the soil, it also opens up the tree canopy to allow sunlight to reach the forest floor. Allowing the sunlight onto the forest floor brings forth many benefits including native grasses and forbs, creating excellent habitat for Arizona’s Merriam’s wild turkeys and other wildlife, including the threatened Mexican Spotted Owl.

This multi-year effort is the result of a stewardship agreement between the NWTF and the USDA Forest Service. However, it is a high priority for the state of Arizona, Salt River Project (a community-based not-for-profit company that provides water and power to more than 2 million people living in central Arizona), the Town of Payson and its residents.

“We’ve always viewed this project as one with multiple beneficiaries and one that would require many other partners,” Dorsey said. “We are fortunate to have so many engaged partners at the table.”

Located on the Mogollon Rim Ranger District of the Coconino National Forest, the General Springs Restoration project is the first phase of the 37,000-acre Cragin Watershed Protection project. General Springs is the first of five high-priority projects due to its importance in water delivery to Payson (this area contains aqueducts, pump facilities, utility lines etc.) and has been an overall success and a great start to the project at large.  

The NWTF is working with partners to raise $350,000 in private funding to support phase one of the General Springs Restoration project. This private funding will leverage $2.3 million in federal  funding to complete the $2.65 million General Springs Restoration project.

“Our goal is not to stop after the first phase, but to complete treating the whole watershed,” Dorsey explained. “It’s expensive work, but the community and its drinking water are priceless.”

Reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfire; saving human lives, homes and businesses; improving forest health, fish habitat and wildlife habitat; making outdoor opportunities better and more accessible; and ensuring a clean supply of water is available for Payson residents are all reasons why the NWTF is engaged with this crucial project.  

What wild turkeys and Payson, Arizona have in common is that they illustrate forest health is paramount. Without resilient, fire-tolerant forests, accessing clean water becomes more difficult. Likewise, without diverse, sustainable forests, there is less suitable habitat and thus less outdoor recreational activities. These facets are all interconnected and is why the NWTF’s conservation mission is so expansive.

“This isn’t a typical habitat enhancement project,” said Dorsey. “This is about developing resiliency on the landscape, so that a wildfire won’t leave the town of Payson without a surface water source, a local resident without an escape route or a firefighter without a choice. This is about a healthy forest and a healthy home for the wild turkey.

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