The Way Our Forest Was



Soon folks will be pulling their Christmas trees out of storage or buying imports out of Oregon. Boy, have things changed in Payson since I was a kid.

The forest that we see in and around Payson today, and have seen for at least the last 100 years, is not natural. No one living today has seen the ponderosa forest that stretched from the Grand Canyon east to the Black Range of New Mexico in its natural state.


The Forest Service is beginning to use goats to assist in forest thinning efforts. By utilizing animals like goats, heavy forest growth can be turned into fertilizer or stomped into the ground to add nutrients to the soil.

But both of my granddads, Floyd Pyle and Walter Lovelady, as well as Tommie Cline Martin's granddad, Walter Haught, all saw it and described it to me. The former dean of forestry at Northern Arizona University, Dave Garrett, agrees with their portrayal, and there are also pictures of old Payson to substantiate their claims.

Back then, this land was an open, ponderosa savanna -- a grassland with 13 to 30 trees to an acre. They were not all pine. Some were blackjack oak or white oak and there were a few big alligator junipers. In the higher country, aspen, along with white fir, Douglas fir, and maple joined the ponderosa.

The country above and below the Rim was drained by clean-running streams.

Granddad Floyd Pyle told me that a man could run a horse all-out anywhere under this Rim. Rocks or rough country might slow a horse down, but trees and brush were no impediment. The Tonto Basin was a grass land.

My dad told me in 1960, "Cowboy, there are 1,000 miles of dry stream bed within 25 miles of Payson where I used to catch fish as a kid," and we have lost many more springs and streams since that time. This may sound like an outlandish statement today, but every major canyon and creek that heads under the Mogollon Rim used to run water to Pyeatt Draw, Al Tompkins Draw (not Thompson Draw as the Forest Service calls it today) and other streams that eventually emptied into Tonto Creek or the East Verde River.

Now, like many Rim Country streams, the East Verde is dry, unless water is pumped into it from the Blue Ridge Reservoir. The pioneers didn't call a dry stream bed a river. The Rim Country was a well-watered land 120 years ago and the East Verde was a river.

What happened? Brush and junk trees are what happened.

With the advent of the Forest Service in 1905 came their fire prevention policy. Prior to that, Garrett explained, fire burned over the Rim Country every five to six years, and he proved it utilizing a section of a 1200-year-old tree which shows fire scars at these intervals.

The change was not immediate, but as a result of the Forest Service fire prevention policy in 1905, there was nothing to curtail the number of young tree seedlings, or the young brush plants. Grass could not compete with trees and brush for water and nutrients, so brush and young trees began to crowd out the perennial grasses.

Today, cedar trees cover the landscape where grass once waved. And cedars dissipate their weight in water into the atmosphere every 24 hours if the water is available and the East Verde is dry.

I recall that when I was 7, my dad (Gene Pyle) and I were cutting firewood. He gave me my first lesson in dendrochronology. He showed me the rings on an old pine stump and explained how every year the tree made a ring. He told me that the age of the tree in years was the same as the number of rings. From the center of the tree out, the rings were easy to count for the first 70 years of its life, then they started getting closer together.

Next, he took me to a little thicket of pines where he selected a tree about as big around as his forearm and cut it with an axe. We took it back over to the stump where he cut it straight across and clean with one good swing of the axe. We tried to count the rings, but they were too close together.

Dad then stood the butt of the little tree on the big stump and cut it off at a slant. Then we could count the rings, but it wasn't easy. That tree was 42 years old.

Then we counted out 42 rings from the center of the big old pine stump and my dad marked the diameter on his axe handle with his pocket knife. We measured that distance with a steel tape when we got home. It was over 19 inches.

Dad told me the Indians had raised that big tree for us and went on to say that it was about 50 years old in 1905 when the Forest Service fire prevention policy went into effect. He added that after the first 20 years of fire protection, we hadn't been able to raise a decent tent pole in the best ponderosa pine country the world had ever seen. Dad said, "In Arizona, trees need some space to grow."

He explained that it was like growing carrots in a garden. When they come in too thick, they have to be thinned or they will never grow to amount to anything.

And he said that fire is nature's way of thinning trees so they have sufficient access to sunlight, water, and minerals to grow and resist disease. He could have added bark beetles.

The smoke that we are breathing today from prescribed burns started as excess fuel 100 years ago. This is not the forest that we inherited from the Indians.

The drought didn't cause this. It doesn't matter how dry it gets. If there is not excessive fuel, there can be no fire hazard.

What we have in our ponderosa savannas is a lot of "fuelishment" brought on by 100 years of fire protection. There was no fire hazard, no big fires in the Rim Country until after 1950.

The Forest Service spent its first 100 years creating this fire hazard, and it looks as if they intend to spend the next 100 burning it up.

Fire can be used beneficially as a tool, but it should be used only with forethought, and in conjunction with other tools and an overall plan. Not just as a "burn 'em up -- let 'er rip -- and lock 'em out" policy.

The answer is not to burn it all up because, first, we are burning up the good with the bad -- throwing the baby out with the bath water, so to speak. And, second, we are nuking what little soil we have left when we use a hot-burning fire to get rid of the brush.

If we want to be rid of the brush and the fire hazard, it would be far better to let animals -- goats, buffalo, cattle, elk, sheep, or anything -- eat it and turn it into fertilizer to enhance the organic material in the ground so that we can turn the process back toward a more complex and stable environment, something we all want to see.

It would swing us back toward the process that produced the perennial grasses, the big blackjack oak, white oak, and ponderosa pine trees, and, of course, the clean-running streams and springs. It would be far better to turn this "fuelishment" into fertilizer or stomp it into the ground to add nutrients to the soil rather than to burn it, sterilize the soil, and cover it with ashes in the process.

The Willow Fire of last year did not just burn brush and undesirable species; it burned 1200-year-old trees in places like Y Bar Basin and Bull Springs. Many Payson people saw scorched, 4-inch-long live oak leaves drop into their yards. These trees are lost, and without our help they won't grow back.

Fire simplifies the ecosystem, sterilizes the ground, and covers it with ash. Diversity of plant and animal life requires organic, living soil. Most people understand this when it comes to raising a garden.

They don't try to grow flowers or tomatoes in pink granite. They get some steer manure, organic dirt, and maybe some Miracle Gro, and mix it in with the decomposed granite. Otherwise, the tomatoes die and weeds take over.

The same holds true in the forest. It's the soil that we need to protect, or, in most cases, to restore.

So what kind of vegetation can we expect to grow back in the burned over areas left by the fire? Weeds, forbs, and brush will grow back unless we do something to enhance the soil, to make it organic, living.

Buck brush, locus, thistles, and annual grasses, such as fox tail, are low on the succession scale and will usually grow back after a fire unless the ground has been sterilized too deep. Pine trees and perennial grasses won't. Live oak and blackjack oak won't grow in a simplistic ecosystem. The animal population will likewise become more simplistic.

We need to give this burned over area a jump-start by using cloven-hoofed animals to grind organic material back into sterile dirt to put back living micro-organisms, and we will have to supplement these animals in the beginning to make it work.

If we use the same restoration efforts that we have seen in the past, we will fail just like they did after the Dude and Rodeo-Chediski fires.

To paraphrase Einstein, the same thinking that creates a problem cannot be used to solve it. It becomes systemic.

We need to bring some new blood, some new thinking to the table if we want to solve the problems that face us today. It doesn't take a historian to understand that those who will not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

Town Historians Jayne Peace and Jinx Pyle, owners of Git A Rope! Publishing, Inc., have written the following: "Looking Through the Smoke," "Blue Fox," "History of Gisela," "Mountain Cowboys," "Rodeo 101: History of the Payson Rodeo," "Muanami - Sister of the Moon," "Calf Fries and Cow Pies," and "Cooking for Zane Grey Under the Tonto Rim." Look for these books at Jayne and Jinx's new business, Git A Rope Antiques in the Art and Antique Corral, located at 1104 S. Beeline Highway, Payson (look for the horse and the American flag). They also have some great antiques and gifts for the holiday season. Phone is (928) 474-0011.

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