Category Archives: Mother Nature

New Grand Canyon Exhibit Highlights the Arizona Trail

Gill Couto | Arizona Trail

Gill Couto | Arizona Trail

As reported by our friends at The Arizona Republic, a visitors center near the Grand Canyon is opening an exhibit on the 817-mile Arizona Trail, which runs from Arizona’s northern border with Utah to its southern border with Mexico.

The trail, a federally designated National Scenic Trail, showcases some of Arizona’s most spectacular landscapes. A small portion of it passes through the Grand Canyon.

Earlier this year, we told you about Sirena Dufault, who hiked the entire trail to raise awareness of it. This new exhibit, at Tusayan’s National Geographic Visitor Center, should help that effort, too.

For more information about the Arizona Trail, visit the Arizona Trail Association’s website,


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Q&A: Swinging From the Trees in the White Mountains

John Miller | White Mountains

John Miller | White Mountains

Recently, we received an email from James Nesslage, a construction contractor with Nessco Designs in Sanders. Nesslage thought we’d be interested to know about his seasonal project: From late August to mid-October, he and his crew harvest pine cones from trees in the White Mountains, and the U.S. Forest Service uses the cones to plant new trees in areas damaged by the Rodeo-Chediski and Wallow fires.

Indeed, we were interested. We reached out to Nesslage and asked him a few questions about this unusual line of work. He’s also going to have someone on his crew shoot photos of the work being done, and we’ll bring those to you in a future post.

Q: How did you get into cone-picking?
A: I am actually a construction contractor but kinda stumbled into cone-picking. I was just perusing the FedBizOpps [Federal Business Opportunities] page one day and came across a solicitation for seed-cone harvesting. After reading the scope of work, I thought, “We could do this!” I’ve had years of climbing experience, and I have always gravitated toward niche-type occupations anyway, so it sounded like a lot of fun. Go camping, climb trees and get paid for it! Sweet!

The first season was a little hectic because we didn’t even know we had the contract until I got a call on Saturday, saying, “Start Monday.” Yikes!  Well, we scrambled up our equipment, jammed down to the White Mountains and started picking. Our first week was just myself, a couple of my regular employees and my granddaughter living out of the back of my truck. By week two, we were starting to get things together and lined up some more help, along with a little better camping situation. Still pretty primitive, but we learned a lot and had some fun. Well, when the season was over, we told a lot of our friends about it, and everyone was pretty jazzed. When the next season came along, we had lots of folks who wanted to join us. Now we work with a crew of 15 to 20 people, with some rotating home or only working part of the season because they have to go back to their real jobs. It takes someone who has a great spirit of adventure and a good work ethic to do this kind of work. It’s hard, it’s dangerous, and it requires a lot of trust in your teammates.

Q: What’s a typical day of harvesting like?
A: The typical workday starts around 6 a.m. with breakfast and a safety meeting. Then, it’s off to the trees. We use standard climbing equipment, including ropes, harnesses, friction savers, ascenders (no climbing spikes!) and so on. I try to have some trees rigged the night before so there is minimal time lost getting the pickers aloft. We use a powder-activated launcher to send a light line up into the tree and over a good, strong branch. Using the throw line, we pull the friction saver (a kind of strap with two rings, one on each end) over the limb and then the climbing rope through the friction saver. This protects the bark of the tree and prolongs the life of the rope.

The climber ties in and is hoisted up into the lower branches. With the right equipment, you can pull yourself up, but we found that by the time the climber pulls himself up to the top, he’s so tired that he has to wait quite a while before he’s able to start picking, so we do that part for him.  We keep two climbers in each tree for safety, as each can help the other to tie off or belay. The ground crew makes sure the climbers have anything they need, including picking bags, water, snacks, whatever keeps them going.

After the climbers pick a bag of cones, they are lowered to the ground and the ground crew sorts them for quality control. Sometimes they will have insects that eat the seeds or other defects. The cones from each tree are kept in separate sacks and tagged, each tag listing the region, location and specific tree, including GPS coordinates.

Q: What species of trees do you harvest, and how much is done in one day?
A: Most teams can pick two trees in a day, with three or four bushels of cones from each tree. Primarily, the species harvested are white pine, Douglas fir and ponderosa pine. Each species has distinctive cones, so the number of actual seeds collected varies. We will do a field test on a couple of cones from each tree before picking to make sure the cones are healthy and the seeds are mature enough to pick.

After we harvest, the bags of cones are stored in a cooler in Alpine until a truck takes them to a nursery just outside Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, where they process and sprout the seeds and then grow them for a couple of years, until they are seedlings. When they are ready, they are shipped back to Arizona, and a team plants them in the same area the seeds were harvested. That’s why we do all the record-keeping. The genetics of each tree are, of course, passed on to its seedlings, so we have to be pretty picky about which trees are harvested. Healthy, straight, no forked trunks, et cetera. That way we get good seedlings for reforestation.

Q: What are the challenges of this kind of work, and what do you enjoy about it?
A: The real challenges are mostly psychological, but you do have to be in fairly decent physical shape to climb. Primitive living conditions (although we try to make that as comfortable as possible), close living with a sizable group, working in somewhat hazardous positions, and the guts to work until the job is done. With that being said, it’s the best office I’ve ever had. There is something almost spiritual about sitting in a tree, 150 feet above the ground, a slight breeze of clean air blowing the tree with a gentile rocking, watching eagles and hawks soar just above your head and feeling the sun warm you. Almost puts you in a trance. I’ve actually taken a nap up there.  Yeah, it’s awesome!

Q: Can people come watch the work being done? Or can people join the crew?
A: If anyone would like to come watch, they can just email me ( and I will let them know where we will be that day. I have to be pretty choosy about who helps because of the challenges I mentioned, but I am certainly willing to talk to someone if they would like to join us.


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Sedona Receives Coveted ‘Dark Sky’ Status

Kelli Klymenko | Sedona

Kelli Klymenko | Sedona

Stargazers now have another Arizona city they can visit for pristine views of the night sky. The International Dark-Sky Association has named Sedona an International Dark Sky Community, making it the second city in Arizona to receive the designation (Flagstaff is the other).

There now are just eight such communities in the world, and Arizona is the only place with two of them. The others are in California, Texas, Illinois, Indiana, the United Kingdom and France.

As The Arizona Republic reports, the city has been active in reducing nighttime “light pollution” for the past 15 years. Sedona tourism officials hope the designation will help boost tourism in the area.

The IDSA also maintains a list of dark-sky parks. That list includes Arizona’s remote Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument, which received its designation in March.


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Friday Fotos: Wild Arizona

Don Lawrence | Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness

Don Lawrence | Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness

We included 84 photos in this week’s “wilderness”-themed Friday Fotos, and that still wasn’t enough to do justice to your amazing submissions. Keep them coming! And for more wilderness, pick up our September issue, on newsstands now. In it, we pay tribute to the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act with a look at Arizona’s most pristine and protected places.

Also, stay tuned to the blog in September, when we’ll spotlight three of Arizona’s 90 wilderness areas each day of the month.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

By submitting photographs to Arizona Highways via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr or other social networking sites, the photographer grants Arizona Highways electronic rights. No financial consideration will be paid to anyone for publication on the Arizona Highways blog or website.

By publishing a photographer’s work to its blog, Arizona Highways does not endorse the photographer’s private business or claim responsibility for any business relationships entered into between the photographer and our readers.

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Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests Supervisor Discusses San Juan Fire Management

Alia Shaban Pedigo | Apache Sitgreaves National Forest

Alia Shaban Pedigo | Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests

EDITOR’S NOTE: We received the following letter last week from Jim Zornes, forest supervisor for the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests.

There has been a lot of discussion in the media lately on the national forest treatment activities associated with the management of the San Juan Fire on the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests.  I hope to at least set the record straight on what has occurred, and dispel some inaccurate information as it relates to vegetation-management activities on the local level.

The San Juan Fire started around noon on Thursday, June 26, 2014, on White Mountain Apache tribal lands near San Juan Lake. The fire was driven by a strong southwest wind and soon crossed over onto the Apache-Sitgreaves NF, about 6 miles south of Vernon. The Fort Apache Agency of the Bureau of Indian Affairs ordered the Southwest Area Incident Management Team (IMT) 4 (Matt Reidy’s team), who assumed command of the fire at 8:00 p.m. on Friday, June 27, 2014. The fire was making significant crown fire runs in the mixed conifer, and burning downslope toward the transition into ponderosa pine. One of the first pieces of information from the San Juan Fire IMT was the accounts of the fire lying down when it hit areas of treatment in the pine.

White Mountain Stewardship (WMS) is still the oldest and largest “operationally active” stewardship contract in the country, beginning in August 2004 and terminating in August 2014. It terminates in August because federal law requires all Integrated Resource Service Contracts to have a maximum term of 10 years. WMS was developed in the aftermath of the Rodeo-Chediski Fire of 2002 to treat fuels, especially around communities, and to build industry to support future treatment opportunities.  It is, and has been, wildly successful. The degree of magnitude did not rise to the 150,000-acre threshold as planned, but has resulted in over 70,000 acres of mechanical treatment.  A large portion of those treatments occurred in the path of the San Juan Fire. We don’t have to go back very far to see the same benefits of treatments in Alpine, Nutrioso, Eagar and Greer from the Wallow Fire.

But that’s not the whole story for the San Juan Fire; there have been thousands of acres of other treatments outside WMS that include additional timber sales, stewardship contracts and prescribed fire. Rocky Mountain Elk Society, Arizona Elk Society, Arizona Game and Fish Department and the Habitat Partnership Committee have all stepped up to contribute funds to carry out these additional fire and vegetation management activities.  Some news accounts have stated all these activities in past tense, but during the San Juan Fire, active logging was still occurring with log decks immediately adjacent to the fire lines. Additionally, prescribed fire is occurring whenever fire personnel can safely meet the objectives of their burn plans.

Suppression activities on the nearly 7,000-acre San Juan Fire are estimated to cost about $6.5 million (excluding resource values), with $250,000 of that total included as Burned Area Emergency Response. The above mentioned activity equates to approximately $932 per acre.  Without prior treatments modifying fire behavior, the number of acres burned, the total costs of suppression and risk to firefighters would have been much higher. Mechanical treatments and prescribed fire modify the fuels environment; remember, the fire triangle contains air (oxygen), heat and fuel.  The goal of treatment, whether by mechanical means or prescribed fire, is to reduce the effects of heat generated by reducing the amount of fuels. That in turn reduces the propensity for fires to reach the crowns of trees, and allows firefighters a safer environment to work.

Mechanical treatment costs have actually fallen from a high of around $500 per acre 10 years ago to at or near zero costs today. For the past three and a half years, competitive-bid timber sales and stewardship contracts have actually posted positive returns to Treasury. However, another cost center that must be addressed is the cost in firefighter safety. It is not enough to say one person or another is to blame for firefighter losses we’ve experienced over the past few years.  Even one is not acceptable; even one is not on the table as a consequence of actions.  Treatments do improve the “odds” of firefighters successfully managing and/or suppressing wildfires in a safer environment.

But once again, fire suppression and national-forest treatment costs are not the total story; those activities from partnership dollars, along with work being done by Navajo, Greenlee and Apache counties in partnership with Arizona State Forestry and White Mountain Apache Tribe, have contributed greatly to treating both sides of the ownership lines, whether it is federal, state or private lands. Those continued partnership activities are what it is going to take to continue to make advancements in protecting communities and resources in the White Mountains.   There is currently a national investigation team looking at the effectiveness of treatments — another requirement for incidents such as the San Juan Fire when a wildfire burns into managed areas.  If past history is a guide, I think we may already know the results of that outcome.

— Jim Zornes, Forest Supervisor, Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests

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Oak Creek Canyon Closures Announced

David Creech‎ | Oak Creek

David Creech‎ | Oak Creek

Bad news if you’re headed to Oak Creek Canyon this holiday weekend. From our friends at the U.S. Forest Service:

SEDONA, Ariz. – The Coconino National Forest has expanded the Slide Fire emergency closure area to include all National Forest land within Oak Creek Canyon beginning Thursday (July 3).

The closure is being implemented for public safety due to the risks associated with flooding from monsoon, debris flow and the limited ability to quickly inform and evacuate people along Oak Creek if a flood event were to occur.

The closure boundary expansion will include all National Forest land within Oak Creek Canyon from the northern switchbacks to an area near the southern Huckaby trailhead at Schnebly Hill Road. All developed recreation sites and vehicle pullouts along State Route 89A will be closed.  To view the official Closure Order and a map of the entire closure area, visit

The closure only affects National Forest land, roads, and trails within the closure area on the Coconino National Forest.  The closure does not affect any private, state, county, or other non-National Forest lands or roads within the closure boundary.

Additionally, the public water Sterling Springs standpipe in Oak Creek Canyon has been shut off to protect the water system from potential contamination, silt and debris during flooding.

The following information sources have been established for the public to obtain information about the status of Oak Creek Canyon and preparing for possible monsoon flooding in the canyon:

Oak Creek Canyon Information Hotline: 928-203-7505

Coconino County’s Slide Fire Area Monsoon Flood Preparation web page:

For visitors looking who had plans to visit Oak Creek Canyon during this time of the year, alternatives to recreating at Oak Creek Canyon can be found online at

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