Marching bands are a big deal in Arizona, at least among my relatives who live in Phoenix. Arizona HS have these bands and the compete statewide. The coordination is amazing. These things have their roots in military formation and you can see why it would have been needed. The many kids know what to do. Their diverse roles lead to a common desirable outcome.
We attended the 2017 Arizona State Marching Band Championships because Chrissy’s sister Diane’s daughter, Maleah, was a participant. She plays the euphonium, sort of like a little tuba.
The competition was held at Arizona State (ASU) Sun Devil Stadium. I got a few pictures to show what it looks like.
Think of forests and most of the time the picture that comes to mind is shady galleries of spreading branches. But the sunny saguaro lands also are forests. One of the thickest of these is on the land of the Saguaro National Park near Tucson Arizona. There are miles of hiking trails, but we were not so rich either in ambition or time, so we took the eight-mile driving loop, stopping at the various places of interest and walking the short ecology trial. We had a nice convertible rental car, so we could enjoy the views from all angles even when moving.
When this park was established as a National Monument in 1931, the saguaro were thick and close together. That is what impressed the founders of the park, who thought that this place had been like that for centuries and should remain that way in perpetuity.
Unfortunately, there was a cold snap in 1937 and again in 1962 and the saguaro started to die off. Since the cactus did not die immediately, scientists did not immediately understand that saguaro will often die if temperatures drop below freezing for more than twenty hours and tried to figure out if some sort of unknown “cactus blight” was the cause. There were dire predictions that if current trends continued, the saguaro would be extirpated by 1990. It was the cold and the thick cactus forest was the result of unusually warm weather in the late 1800s that had allowed greater survival. The more normal cold weather was just cutting them back. A more serious problem seemed to be recruitment of new saguaro. Scientists could find almost no young cactus among the old ones. So, even absent a “saguaro blight”, w/o new cactus the cactus forest had no future.
Saguaro have specific needs to get established. It has to be a relatively moist year and the little saguaro must be under a “nurse tree”, most often a palo verde, ironwood or mesquite tree, that protects them from drying out or from very hard rain. They also need not to be trampled. When cattle graze, they trample the young saguaro. When the authorities removed the cattle, and protected the nurse trees, the saguaro started to come back. There are now many little saguaros among the big old ones.
Saguaro grow only in the Sonoran Desert and only less than 4000 feet above sea level. They grow slowly and do not get their first “arm” until at least fifty years and maybe 100 when there is less rain. They may live to be around 200 years old. They are easily damaged and do not regenerate very easily. As the urban areas of Phoenix and Tucson expand, they are moving into saguaro country. Saguaro are icons of the old Southwest. Home owners love saguaro on their property. Let’s hope this love helps with protection.
So far, this is less a story of loss and more one of regeneration. Hope it continues. My first picture shows some of the vistas, as does picture #4. Between is me in a “cowboy pose” and CJ in the rental car. Last picture is low density housing creeping into the saguaro. This is not all bad news. Park officials are working with home owners to maintain and enhance conditions for the survival of the saguaro ecology.
In keeping with my beer tour activities, we stopped off at Thunder Canyon Brewery in Tucson. They have an IPA called “Sky Island”. It tasted good, but the taste came second to the name in my book. Anyway, the photos below are self explanatory, except maybe the last one. That is a left over picture from the Ramsey Canyon/Sky Island post of a couple days ago. Ramsey Canyon had people living there permanently and seasonally escaping the hot desert. This shack is typical of them and seems familiar to anybody who has watched old westerns. I could imagine the sheriff coming up to see if outlaws were holed up in a place like this.
We came here to look at TNC lands with Apache pines. I will write about that in a few hours. But meanwhile we enjoyed some nice things in southern Arizona.
We drove through Bisbee, Arizona. It used to be a big mining town and there were lots of rich people there at the turn in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.They built some nice houses, often in the eclectic style of people newly in the money. But the boom did not last and prosperity moved elsewhere, leaving a smaller city with a bigger past. The funky atmosphere, pleasant climate and inexpensive real estate attracted lots of the children of the 1960s, after Haight-Ashbury got too expensive and too square. They ended up here, where they seem to have aged in place, making it a kind of new age haven. Lately, there has evidently been a boom in brewing, which is a good thing.
First picture shows Chrissy & I hoisting a couple of local beers in Bisbee. Next is Chrissy in the rental car. After that is the bar where we drank the beer and a street scene from Bisbee. Last is the pre-dawn sky from cousin Elise and Carl’s house.
Sky islands are communities of plants & animals in places like Arizona characteristic of more northern ecologies. Altitude substitutes for latitude. They are remnant populations, surviving from a time when the earth was much cooler during the most recent ice age. As the earth started to warm about 10,000 years ago, these cooler-adapted communities moved up the mountains. They are like islands because they are surrounded by scrub or desert. That makes them precious and vulnerable, since they are unconnected to other islands or to the larger populations of their similar species, i.e. from seed/genetic banks to regenerate if a population was extirpated locally. It also makes them extremely interesting, since you can essentially go through biomes from hot desert to something like Canada by walking up hill and they provide lessons for adaption when climates change.
We came to the sky island at Ramsey Canyon to see Apache pine, pictured above. I learned that Apache pine have an ecology kind of like longleaf and kind of like ponderosa. Since I love both those species, I wanted to get to know these too. Apache pine are mostly present in Mexico’s Sierra Madre. They extend into the USA in parts of New Mexico and Arizona on patches like Ramsey Canyon. The Nature Conservancy owns a the preserve at Ramsey Canyon. I asked if I could talk to the steward of the place, and Eric Anderson was good enough to spend the morning with us, explaining the unique ecology of this part of Arizona. Eric and I are pictured below.
Ramsey Canyon sits at the nexus of four disparate biomes. To the north are the Rockies; south are the Sierra Madre; west is the Sonoran Desert and east is the high Chihuahua Desert. All of these influence the plant and animal communities, and you find species associating in ways like no place else. For example, Eric showed us agave cactus next to Apache pine, not far from Douglas fir and partly in the shade of massive sycamores.
You can see some of this above and below. The Douglas fir surprised me. There were some really big ones. I associate Douglas fir with the rain forests of the Pacific Northwest. I did not expect to find them thriving so far south and near such dry deserts.
Most of the timber from the region was cut in the late 19th century, with the wood used for houses, mines and fuel in what were then fast-growing places like Tombstone and Bisbee, at the time among the fastest growing cities in the USA. Eric thinks that accessible forests were was mostly clear cut and the wood hauled away. Forests regenerated, but they were very different from those they displaced. The open and park-like coniferous forests were replaced by thick brushy forests of scrub oak. What these forests mostly produced was fuel for disastrous fires. When conifers did grow back, they also came in thick, what foresters call “dog hair” woods. These provide little space for the food that supports wildlife, and, like the scrub, they burn very hot. On a tangent, Eric told us that the oak trees do not drop their leaves in autumn. They hold them throughout the winter and drop them in spring, before the hot and dry period in April and May. Those are the hottest two months. After that, the rains arrive and the wetter and cloudier weather cools the hills.
Fire was a key component of the pine forests. It burned through every 7-10 years, but those fires were low intensity. It knocked out the scrub but big trees were largely immune. The new fire regime featured less frequent but hotter fires that destroyed much of the standing forest and burned to the bare earth. It was a terrible cycle and we are still suffering. You can see a cross section of an Apache pine in the picture above. The thick bark is almost immune to low intensity fire. The two cuts you see below are about the same age. The one grew in an open forest; they other was part of a “dog hair” forest.
TNC wanted to reestablish natural rhythms, but could not used fire as much as the the natural ecology would indicate because there is too much chance of it getting away into nearby inhabited places. Another complication is that Ramsey Canyon is surrounded by wilderness areas. You would think that wilderness areas would be more “natural,” but you would be wrong. These areas were also impacted by the logging and mining of past, but now they are frozen in that state. They also grew back in the scrub and “dog hair” manner. They are full of fuel and are liable to burn in that disastrous way I mentioned above. Because they are officially called wilderness, they are subject to various restrictions and cannot be managed to reduce fuel and fire risk in ways that would be applied elsewhere.
On the TNC land, they have thinned down the scrub oak on the north facing slopes and they hauled away the cutting. This is not as good as thinning followed by prescribed fire, but it as close as they can do under the current restraints. Some beneficial results are already clear. We saw regeneration of Apache and Chihuahuan pine, seedlings and young trees. The young Apache pine look a lot like longleaf in their grass and bottle brush stages. There was a nice section of almost pure Apache pine. We could see carbon on the trunks and speculated that this area was fortunate to have a few low intensity fires pass through. It is amazing what comes back when you reestablish some of the natural factors. You can see the thinned brush above and below. Eric says that before the thinning, it was almost impossible to walk through the brush. Since the thinning, he has noticed that raptors like hawks have come to the area and more wildlife in general is present.
Eric shared a poignant story about the guys who do the thinning. They are convicts from the local prison. It is sought after work for them and Eric says that they are usually hard-working and thoughtful men, but with the big problem is that they cannot stay out of trouble. He says that when they get out on parole, they often come by with their wives or mothers to show them the work. They are proud of the work they did and the restoration they helped encourage. Eric stays in touch with some of them, but it is hard for them to stay on the straight and narrow. When they get out, they often fall in with the same sorts of people and lifestyles that caused them the trouble in the first place.
TNC is doing wonderful work to protect and regenerate these precious sky islands, and they do such excellent work wherever they are. I love what they are have done and are doing with longleaf. Theirs is the perfect combination of doing-learning-adapting and doing again. I have visited TNC preserves all over the country. Seeing their work and hearing about it from the people doing it is a great privilege. Below is a link to more information about Ramsey Canyon.
A big fire in 2002 destroyed large areas of forest on the upper slopes of Mount Lemmon. Looking at the results more than ten years later makes you think about how/if/why to help nature.
Mountains in places like southern Arizona are sometimes called “sky islands.” The forest systems on the mountains are different from the surrounding deserts. They are often remnant communities, left over from times thousands of years ago when the climate was much cooler. These island are fragile, both because of their limited extant, which makes it harder to regenerate from remnants, but even more because they are no longer really well adapted to the new climate conditions.
An established ecological community can create and maintain conditions that allow it to continue. That means that an established forest may be able to maintain itself, but would not regenerate on the same place if removed. This is the dilemma of restoration.
The idea that we should “let nature decide” is a little silly. We should seek sustainable systems, not strictly natural ones. When I looked out at the results of the fire I noticed the differences. Nature was not deciding; it was random chance. In some places forests had survived, maybe through a lucky change in wind direction. Here the sky island would remain. In other places the holes were too big. They would change. The forest biome would likely be replaced by a more scrub desert environment. Should we let that happen?
Human action could “restore” the forests to the conditions they had been in before the fire. This would not be the natural result, but it could be a sustainable one. It is more a value choice than a scientific one. Science delineates the boundaries of what CAN be done. We decide what should be done within that. I would advocate restoration.
A land ethic tells us that what improves the biotic community is a good thing. It dictates that we act responsibly and with caution. It implies an iterative process, doing, learning, changing doing better. But it does imply doing something beyond “letting nature decide.”
Chrissy and I had a couple beers at the Barrio Brewery in Tucson. The beer and the atmosphere was good. I like it that small breweries are popping up all over. They often do it in the old industrial areas, hard to find. But GPS makes them accessible.