An open ponderosa forest appears during a hike to the top of Cerro Grande peak. Stumps with flat, cut-off tops do not appear in this area, suggesting that logging did not occur. Photo by Robert Dryja
Amateur Naturalist: Exploring the Cerro Grande Peak
Scene 2 –The Forest
By ROBERT DRYJA
We have been following a play called “A Hike to the Top”. Scene 1 of this play is set at the level base of the Cerro Grande Peak. It presents the impact of forest fire, draught, bark beetles and logging. Scene 2 is much pleasanter.
Scene 2 starts in open ponderosa forest. The Cerro Grande forest fire was a low intensity burn in this area. The trees were spread apart and their branches were growing high above the ground. The fire burnt low-growing shrubs and small trees, resulting in open land among the larger trees.Settlers coming to the western United States during the 19th century praised the open forests of ponderosa trees. It was easy for a horse drawn wagon to pass among trees and the ground was covered with pine needles that softened the ride.
Autumn is a particularly nice time to watch this part of the play. Gambel oak forms masses of brown leaves. The conifer trees merge with a large grove of aspen trees. It is possible to hike for a quarter of mile below the aspen trees in golden-yellow sunlight when the leaves are at their peak of leaf color change.
It also is possible to look down the slope of Cerro Grande peak at other aspen groves. The trees in a cluster may have a similar height and shape. The leaves also may be changing color at the same time. These similarities suggest that a cluster actually may be a single plant organism. An Aspen tree grows rhizomes outward under ground as part of its roots. Individual trees then grow vertically from the rhizomes. A rhizome can be thought of as a kind of horizontal stem growing below the soil surface.
Any one aspen tree above ground may lay live for 100 to 150 years, but rhizomes below ground may be several hundred to thousands of years old. The Pando Aspen grove in Utah is estimated to be 80,000 years old based on its root network. You can read more about this grove at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pando_(tree).
The forest becomes denser at a higher elevation. It is fortunate to have not been burnt as part of the forest fires in 2000 and 2011. However it is at risk in the future. Photo by Robert Dryja
Aspen groves begin to develop as the elevation continues to increase. Shrubbery such as Gambel oak also appears. Photo by Robert Dryja
Aspen trees can be seen as growing in clusters. One cluster of aspen toward the top of the picture has already lost its autumn leaves while another cluster at the bottom of the picture still has its leaves. How old are these groves based on their roots? Photo by Robert Dryja