Tree climber Andres Velasquez shows tribal member
Merlon Indian the ropes for cone collecting. Indian works as a contract
inspector for the White Mountain Apache Tribal Forestry BAER program.
Cones are sliced to examine if seeds are healthy
Forester’s Log: cone counting
Although there are many reasons math nerds get excited about pine
cones, cone counting can get even more exhilarating when one climbs
eighty-foot-tall trees to collect them. Tree climbing is not for
the faint of heart. Generally there is a breeze up there, and the
tree not only sways in response to the wind but also from the climber’s
movements cutting the cones from tips of the branches. Still, the
idea of making a living climbing trees appeals strongly to the twelve-year-old
kid inside of me. Cone counting is not for the faint of heart either.
Working with numbers that have more than a half-dozen digits can
also be pretty exhilarating. At least that’s how I consoled
that kid in me while I stayed on the ground when over 1,500 bushels
of pine cones were collected on the reservation this past month.
I head up a major reforestation effort to plant ponderosa pine
seedlings on the 2002 Rodeo-Chediski burn and the 2003 Kinishba
burn on the White Mountain Apache tribal lands in east-central Arizona.
The tribe, under contract with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, grows
the seedlings in five greenhouses located on the reservation.
To date we have planted over a million seedlings since the fire,
which seems like a major undertaking but pales when we consider
the lost forest we are trying to replace. Roughly 150,000 to 180,000
acres have had at least 75 percent tree mortality from the burn.
If these forests supported an average of 200 trees per acre before
the burn (actually many of these acres had much more than that,
which is a story of its own for another day), then we are facing
replacement of 30 million to 36 million trees at maturity. Our survival
rates are roughly around 25 percent (tree planting during a drought
in burned country is quite challenging!), so we need somewhere between
120 to 144 million trees to replace the burnt forest. Mother Nature
is doing her part where live trees are nearby, but much of the area
had no seed source. Our million seedling effort seems hopeful, but
in the face of the problem, rather small.
Prior to the burn, the seed stored in refrigerators of forest
offices seemed adequate since no one really expected the huge reforestation
efforts needed on the many recent landscape scale fires. Now what
seemed like a twenty or thirty year supply of seed is rapidly disappearing.
Therefore, even though we did not experience a bummer crop of pine
cones this year, we still wanted to replenish some of the seed we’ve
Cone collecting is tricky business. The cones must be collected
when the seed is mature, but before the cones open and disperse
the seed. Usually there is only about 10 to 15 days when the cones
can be collected. The timing of this biological event varies from
year to year and I felt like an expectant mother waiting for birth,
collecting cones and cutting them open all through September looking
for signs of mature seeds.
Historically, when cones were collected on the reservation, the
trees producing the cones were cut down, the cones were gathered
and the logs went to the reservation sawmill. This year though we
wanted to gather cones as close to the burn and within the burn
so that the seed source closely matches the location where we will
plant the seedlings. Since these trees grow either in stands that
were already thinned or had survived the burn, we chose not cut
the trees down, but rather to contract professional tree climbers
to gather the cones.
While my heart would rather have been climbing the trees, my job
was to figure out how many cones we needed to collect. First, there
are around 40 to 70 healthy seeds in a cone providing the various
insects and diseases that jeopardize seed production are at normal
levels. If current germination rates hold for our newly collected
seed, we will need to sow about 66 seeds for the 44 trees we grow
in each basket in the greenhouse. Roughly then we need to collect
one pine cone for each basket of trees we want to grow. Each greenhouse
table holds 56 baskets, and each green house has 28 tables. We can
grow two crops each year in the five greenhouses so we need about
15,000 cones to gather enough seed for one year of maximum production.
There are approximately 60 cones per bushel, so we need to collect
250 bushels for each year. Allowing approximately 10% mortality
through the seedling production phase, our maximum in-house capacity
is to grow and plant around 620,000 seedlings each year.
The reality is that we won’t collect cones every year, and
so we tried to collect all the cones we could get in the short time
frame we had to get them. If our assumptions are correct, this year
we collected about 6 years worth of seed. And now our challenge
this winter is to separate the seeds from the cones and winged tissue
that surrounds each seed. Again the task seems challenging, and
I’m looking forward to a whole new set of fascinating numbers
inspired by pine cones.
Mary Stuever is the Burn Area Emergency Rehabilitation
Coordinator for the White Mountain Apache Tribe and long-time Placitan.