If a tree falls in the forest…

Splintered Oak Branches across McMillan Trail

Who notices?

I try to get out twice a week to hike, sometimes thrice!  Dog, Friend and I go back and back again to our favorite trails in the Gila National Forest: McMillan, Little Cherry Creek, Deadman’s Canyon, Signal Peak or to trailheads on the Continental Divide Trail that go through the Forest.  When you hike the same trails throughout the years and seasons, you get to know individual trees, individual meadows that bloom with specific wildflowers at specific times in season, individual boulders and hoodoos.  I have a favorite Grandmother Cottonwood on Little Cherry Creek trail that I stop and hug every time I pass.  There are favorite hoodoos that I stop to admire each time I am on Cherry Creek Ranch Rd. On McMillan trail there’s a boulder-created shelter with a smoke-blackened “roof” about which I comment that it would provide a comfortable dry shelter in a sudden storm – every time I hike by it.  A couple of old skeleton junipers along Deadman’s Canyon. A particular view of Cooke’s Peak and the Floridas from a section of the CDT.

Uprooted young pine on McMillan Trail
Uprooted young pine on McMillan Trail

Uprooted Ponderosa pine on Signal Peak

That may explain why I’ve been noticing all these downed trees.  Some are laying roots-up.  Some tops of trees are broken clean off trunks.  Shattered limbs and branches litter the ground around trees bearing fresh wounds.  If I wasn’t a regular visitor observing the environment around me, I probably would answer the question “Who notices?” with “Who, me?”

Snapped at the base — Ponderosa pine on McMillan Trail
Snapped Ponderosa pine on Signal Peak – one of many down

But I am noticing. There’s no dominant species among the victims.  Well, maybe there’s a few more Ponderosa pines up in the higher elevations.  Among the articles I’ve been reading, some research suggests that taller trees are more susceptible.  Oh, but I’m getting ahead of myself on this rabbit trail of tree loss – the main and underlying cause of all this is drought.  According to NOAA’s Drought.gov we here in southwest NM are in exceptional drought. That’s the most severe category. And it’s not short-term.

Drought may be an underlaying weakening, but there is the complicating impact of windstorms causing breakage.  Our forest can be hit by strong down-drafts which are a sucker punch to already weakened tree structures. And then there’s the trifecta of long-term drought with incidental drenching with wind events.  What can resist?

But back on the main trail.  It’s disconcerting to walk a favorite trail and stop to exclaim to Friend or Dog or just to the Forest, “When did that oak fall?”  or “Look at that uprooted youngster.” or “That pine snapped off halfway up the trunk!” And to know that I’m only seeing the edges of tree death.  Match-sticks-pick-up-sticks throughout the Forest.  If a tree falls in the forest, someone needs to be there to notice. 

A grand old Arizona Sycamore on the Gila river suffered a broken trunk

About the Author

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I grew up and lived in the DC Metro area for most of my life. For the last 20-some years of my career, I worked for the Federal Government. Much of that time, I worked with the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the US Forest Service. Visiting refuges and National Forests around the country, working with the folks whose jobs were to protect, restore, and manage the wild lands, forests and creatures that depend on them is where my heart resonated. I didn't know it then, but that's where my public lands advocacy must have been born. I moved from DC to southwestern NM in 2008. I continued to work until 2013, when I left the government in December. Now I spend my time volunteering for various conservation non-profits. And advocating for the protection of these lands that belong to all of us. I enjoy hiking, tracking, writing, photography, reading, birding, and driving bad roads in my big-girl 2013 F150 4x4.

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