Aspen Tree Population Suffers in Northern Arizona
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And while some people are coming to the Western mountains to see and hear the elk, others are coming to see the fall colors. As Arizona Public Radio's Mitch Teich reports, it's the time of year that you notice where fauna and flora collide.
MITCH TEICH reporting:
You'd never confuse northern Arizona with Vermont, but tens of thousands of people from places like Phoenix, Los Angeles and Las Vegas descend on northern Arizona then ascend the San Francisco peaks for some of the best fall foliage in the region.
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TEICH: The Aspen trees put on a show that's completely unlike the colors you'd see in other parts of the country and that's what brings Stacy DeBlasti(ph) and her family up from Phoenix every year to check them out.
Ms. STACY DeBLASTI: We like the way the Aspens sparkle against the dark green pine trees. They sparkle in the sun.
TEICH: And they are a breathtaking sight, white trucks and golden yellow leaves standing out against a field of green on the mountainsides. But not far away, other stands of Aspen trees present a breathtaking sight of their own. These trees have no leaves at all, and beneath them where young Aspens should grow is a forest of bare stripped sticks.
Ms. MARY LOU FAIRWEATHER (Pathologist, US Forest Service): All of these are Aspen stems right here. See that? And they've all gotten browsed to death.
TEICH: Mary Lou Fairweather is a forest pathologist with the US Forest Service, and it's her job to find out why the Aspen trees in northern Arizona are dying at a rate no one's ever seen before. She says part of the problem is that Aspens are tasty; tasty to elk, that is.
Ms. FAIRWEATHER: We always refer to it as ice cream. Elk don't depend on Aspen for their diet. They eat it because it's there.
TEICH: And that's especially problematic because there are so many elk out there. Biologists say the elk have munched their way through Aspen stands throughout the west from Colorado to Oregon, but in Arizona, the Aspens' problems predate the elk population boom. They started six years ago with a late-season snow that put the Aspens in an especially precarious situation.
Ms. FAIRWEATHER: It sets off a series of events where now you have exposure of that living bark on Aspen trees that wasn't exposed before to all the elements in the summertime. So you get more die-back of those stems because they're exposed to the sun and the wind and other elements.
TEICH: And unlike most trees, Aspens generally don't grow from seeds. Instead, existing trees send up shoots from their root system in a process called suckering, but the elk have gotten to the new shoots, and that's a problem for both animals who live here and tourists who visit. The latter concern is echoed by Jerry Thull, who's with the Flagstaff Convention and Visitors Bureau. Thull says leaf season is especially important to the city's tourism industry.
Mr. JERRY THULL (Flagstaff Convention Visitors Bureau): We have 5,000 hotel rooms here in Flagstaff, and that'll be pretty close to filled occupancy over these three weekends. You'll really notice that impact on the hotels but also on the restaurants and the bars. They will definitely see an impact.
TEICH: Thull is pretty confident state and federal agencies will be able to protect enough Aspens that autumn will continue to lure people to the San Francisco peaks. Arizona Game and Fish is considering ways to allow more elk hunting in the area, and the Forest Service has fenced off some stands of Aspen until the young trees are not in danger of being eaten. They hope that will allow people like Dave Tesmer(ph), who misses the foliage from the upper Midwest, to continue his tradition of finding the fall colors.
Mr. DAVE TESMER: Yeah, I think it's important to see the seasons, and being able to come and see the leaves actually change is just a part of that fall experience that you just don't want to miss.
TEICH: So the goal of forest managers is to continue to keep the Aspens appealing to people but make them less appealing to elk.
For NPR News, I'm Mitch Teich in Flagstaff, Arizona.
MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.