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.
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?”
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.