Sunday, June 26, 2016

Fire returns to the canyon

Can a person fall in love with a canyon? Every year thousands of visitors fall in love with the Grand Canyon, though the areas of the South Rim developed for tourism have a lot more in common with Disneyland than they do with wilderness. But Arizona is laced with innumerable canyons, large and small, so one can be a suitor to many.

My longtime love is an obscure canyon in central Arizona carved out of Precambrian limestone, diabase, and quartzite by the South Fork of Parker Creek. A three-mile hike along a scenic trail takes you from 4900 feet to 6900 feet at canyon's rim. The canyon is aligned east-west, so its north wall faces south and is shrubby and sere, and its south wall faces north and is a different, wetter world of Ponderosa pines and Douglas-firs. In Arizona, exposure is everything.

A magical canyon in the sky.
(Click to enlarge.)
A not-quite-year-round stream supports a biologically rich bottom with alders, sycamores, and oaks, with golden columbines, and with frogs! (Hyla arenicolor, the Canyon Tree Frog.) Visitors include mule deer, American black bears, elk, and wild turkeys. I have also encountered an animal of Mexico and southern Arizona that the nature guides say shouldn't be as far north as Parker Canyon -- Nasua narica, the coati.

It is a magical place.

And one I have grown jealous and possessive of. I have come to see myself as a sort of mayordomo of the South Fork of Parker Canyon, personally accountable for a natural watercourse and the path that follows it. A few seasons ago I assigned myself a workday in the canyon and went up with work gloves, shovel, and two handsaws. I cleared smaller deadfall off the trail and patched two places where storm runoff had made cavities in the footpath. Every hike up the canyon also means taking along a garbage bag so I can pick up what other hikers have left behind. Along the South Fork, the situation isn't too bad -- it is a lightly used trail.

I was back in the canyon last September, introducing it to a longtime friend. My patches have held fine, but more dead trees had fallen across the trail. I need to buy a chainsaw!

About 1.2 miles up-canyon, at 5600 feet, is an ancient alligator juniper with deep burn scars. I have both contemplated and affectionately patted that tree and thought that Parker Canyon most certainly has had fire in the past, though the Forest Service has no record of fire in this canyon since it started keeping records 90 years ago. But the Forest Service does have two long-established fire lookouts in the area. With misplaced good intentions, modern man excluded fire.

Until now.

My magical canyon burned from rim down to trailhead from June 7 to June 11.

Wildfire in the Sierra Ancha of central Arizona,
June 2016. Photo courtesy U.S. Forest Service.

Fallen trees, limbs, needles, and cones had built up to dangerous levels; sickly Ponderosa pines and Douglas-firs crowded one another; the forest floor, deprived of sunlight, was barren of herbs and grasses in too many places. Parker Canyon not only burned again but needed to burn again.

This is current orthodoxy in fire science and I hope it is true, for I still find myself mourning for Parker Canyon. We humans have a hard-to-shake habit of regarding fire as destroyer rather than creator.

But I do believe in the new faith in fire. Men and women with experience and expertise have solid reasons to see fire in a new way. And the ancient juniper tells me that fire was once a regular visitor -- an agent that periodically recycled dead wood into the soil and renewed the South Fork of Parker Canyon. I need only read the history told by the old tree's burn scars.

All the roads and trails into the burn area are closed now and will be for some time while Forest Service crews take measures to control erosion during our soon-to-arrive summer rainy season. A ranger with whom I was in contact during the fire assured me that it was exactly the kind of fire that was needed -- mostly low in burn severity and consuming deadfall, needle buildups, small sickly trees, and dry underbrush. She said that the canyon and the larger federal wilderness area in which the fire burned won't look so good initially but that the long-term effects will be beneficial to forest health.

I hope so. 

In due course I will return to the South Fork of Parker Canyon. I will be interested to see for myself just how the canyon has responded to fire's return. I hope I will see surviving and even flourishing large conifers in a more open forest, with more herbs and grasses under the trees taking advantage of sunlight and the nutrients fire has returned to the soil.

The canyon has burned. Long live the canyon.

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