Ponderosa Pines in Peril
“It is the most beautiful region. A vast forest of gigantic pines, intersected frequently with open glades."
- Lt. Edward Beale, 1857 in the unexplored Ponderosa pine forests of northern Arizona
Ponderosa pine forests were once made up of giant, centuries-old trees with small patches of young replacement trees growing in an almost park-like setting. Low branches, pine-needle litter and brushy undergrowth were kept under control by frequent lightning and aboriginal fires. Because so little fuel accumulated, Ponderosas with their naturally fire-resistant bark could grow to heights of 200 feet and live 400 years or more.
These forests were so open, early travelers could ride a horse or even pull wagons through them without having to clear a trail. Today, these once healthy forests are all but gone.
Ponderosa pines built the American West. Mature trees were abundant and easily accessible. They provided high-quality lumber for growing frontier communities, bustling mining operations and the rapidly expanding railroad system.
Along with settlement and development came the displacement of Native Americans and an end to aboriginal burning practices. Uncontrolled grazing in the early part of the twentieth century further altered forests. Then, the U.S. Forest Service’s fire suppression policy eliminated the lightning-caused fires that had helped maintain Ponderosa pine forest health. By the middle of the twentieth century Ponderosa pine forests were in trouble.
Today, these forests with their gigantic pines and open glades are largely a thing of the past. In their place are vast expanses of small, stagnating trees, crowded together and struggling against insects and disease, as they wait to burn. Ponderosa pine is now the primary forest type fueling massive, stand-replacing wildfires in urban-wildland interface zones, putting wildlife, water resources and whole communities in peril.
Experts say the decline of Ponderosa pine forests is much like the disappearance of the vast and biologically rich longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) ecosystem in the southeastern United States.
The vulnerability of our Ponderosa pine forests puts wildlife, water resources and whole communities in peril.
But with intelligent management we may be able to restore these once open and majestic forests.