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Ponderosa Pine and the Coconino National Forest of Arizona

As a girl raised among the dense rainforests of the Pacific Northwest, crowded with ferns, rhododendrons, and dripping with primordial mosses, my first glimpse of a Northern Arizona forest was a little disconcerting. Frankly, there just wasn't that much to it. From the roadside, all you see is a carpet of grass, lanky tree trunks spaced unsociably apart, and not much else. I was sure this was a sign of something amiss, but later learned this is just what a good stand of ponderosa pine should look like.

The way the ponderosa pine has evolved to survive the complex environment of the Southwest's high country was counterintuitive to the Europeans who settled here, too, and those now responsible for our forests' health are just beginning to understand the dynamic give-and take among the trees, the animals and the elements.

The dignified, hardy ponderosa pine has long been a symbol of the wild American West, and the tree has done particularly well for itself in Arizona. They're found throughout the West from Canada to Mexico, but the stand stretching from Flagstaff along the Mogollon rim to the White Mountains is reportedly the largest continuous stand on the continent. The region's mild wet winters, and pattern of precipitation and dry spells throughout the year make it prime ponderosa habitat.

They're easy to identify, with reddish-brown bark marked by long, mostly vertical black fissures. They produce elegant long needles several inches long and compact pinecones that are a dietary staple among forest birds and mammals. Seedlings can send down deep taproots quickly to soak up as much moisture as possible in this arid region, and mature trees that live atop rock with deep fissures can send their roots down the cracks as far as 40 feet.

Walk through a stand around Flagstaff, or maybe on Mingus Mountain in the heat of the summer, and the air will be heavy with the vanilla-pine-incense scent of the bark. Summer is also a critical time of year for the survival of a healthy stand. Monsoon season brings moisture, but it also brings lightning storms that can spark forest fires, which are actually beneficial events in the forests' own natural maintenance cycle.

Before people began tinkering with the system, a typical low-density forest of big mature pines, spaced widely apart, with grasses underneath created the conditions for frequent but low-intensity surface fires. These fires, which came along every couple of years in some areas, would burn up the grasses, ponderosa seedlings and any other competing trees, leaving the big trees maybe a little scarred, but largely unharmed, and free of any competition for nutrients below. When European settlers introduced grazing cattle which cleared out the grasses, and fire suppression which allowed more seedlings and competing foliage to mature, the balance was disturbed. The taller saplings and denser undergrowth create a "fuel-ladder" that carries fire straight up into the canopy, increasing the intensity and destruction of the burn.

One current method of promoting healthy, fire-resistant stands is prescribed burning, in which a fire is deliberately set and controlled, or an accidental fire is allowed to burn, where conditions are conducive to a fire with the favorable outcomes of ground-fuel reduction, stand-thinning and the production of more grasses and forbs. Forest maintenance policy is a tricky issue in Northern Arizona and throughout the West, where development continually extends into forest and communities feel the imperative to suppress fires that might threaten their homes and businesses, but meanwhile often create the conditions for fewer, but more potentially destructive fires later.

People aren't the only animals that like to live among the ponderosas. The animal life of an average pine forest in Northern Arizona is Bambi-esque with the standard cast of furry woodland creatures, including skunks, porcupines, deer, bunnies and the like. There are a few animals that are closely associated with the ponderosa pine, however, like the Tassel-eared Abert's squirrel, that uses the tree for practically everything, from housing to food. These little critters get high marks on the adorability scale with their extravagantly tufted ears and live almost exclusively in ponderosa pine forests. The red-shafted flicker, a handsome bird characterized by a dapper black bib and red "moustache" can climb up the ponderosa trunks and hammer away for bugs like woodpeckers, but tends to prefer rummaging around on the forest floor for its food. The brown creeper is an understated, mousy little bird that gets its name for the way it scoots up the trunks of the ponderosa in a spiral pattern as it uses its curved bill to pick bugs from the bark.

Hiking, hunting, winter sports, picnicking, mountain biking ... the recreational uses of the Arizona pine forests are many, and time spent strolling in a fragrant stand of pines is one of the special experiences of the Arizona high country.

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