Nature Notes: A drying world, from Flagstaff to Hart Prairie — and then there's flooding – Arizona Daily Sun

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Bob Hoffa, Hart Prairie Preserve, checking the identity of a thistle with a plant app, surrounded by Bebb willow and shrub cinquefoil.
Dateline May 2022, remembering back before the rain: The mountain is burning this summer, so I am raking up needles, dead grass stems and leaves in my huge backyard. I have a couple of days to go, and then it’s done. This lovely yard, this relict landscape, with its native plants, kind of courses through me as it has over the last 30 years.
It has been a magical place, but now with warming, it is a liability.
Looking out the window at my precious little slab of the world; this place helped me find my way in life. My yard’s vegetation is comprised of stuff that may have been here for hundreds or thousands of years, longer than we’ve been here, by a lot.
Since moving into this house in 1990, I got to watch the plants emerge each spring, through the summer and fall and on and on. The yard is dominated by the mesic bunchgrass, muttongrass (Poa fendleriana). As a cool-season grass, it is one of the earliest plants to emerge in spring, red seed stalks emerging under snow in February, in the old days. It is a beautiful grass, worthy of endless expanses. It is blue green, which becomes especially apparent with monsoon rains, when its involute or rolled leaves unfold. Ahh, that economy of nature thing. Biscuit root, wild candytuft and, of course, the dayflower are here, too.
Muttongrass and the dayflower grow in the author’s back yard.
By raking the grasses this year, I am combing out the old leaf blades. This might previously have been done by fire and/or grazing herbivores. As I rake, more stones turn up, dislodged from clay soil turned to dust. The spaces between the bunchgrasses are getting wider, and it pains me to remove this organic debris, laying the soil bare to further drying. So, this is happening here, this measure of change. And yet, of course, muttongrass had a spectacular year in seed production. It’s so touching.
This is what I keep coming back to and hanging on to these days — this beautiful nature that is all around. Plants blooming in a year like this seem kind of amazing, really. Watching juncos tool around so casually, checking cracks in the flagstone for bounty. Birds taking baths; ohh, don’t get me started. With it so dry, watching birds drink and bathe in the pans I have about the yard is a damned good time. The other day, a robin got in and went to town splashing around, got out, shook off and then jumped right back in for more.
The birds seem very polite around the water. When a pair arrives, one often keeps watch while the other drinks. Different species seem to wait their turn. The lesser goldfinches are chowing down on the niger seed with great gusto. I bet they’re headed for a second nesting session.
So, the Peaks and most of the Inner Basin made it through the last fire — the Pipeline Fire — pretty well. The southeast flank burned … again, reburn of the north side of the southern flank near Lockett Meadow, and it kind of looks like Sugarloaf burned again, too. While recovery of forests on the Peaks has been shown to be remarkably fast historically, the pace of that process appears be slowing considerably due to warming and drought, according to Peter Fule, forest ecologist with Northern Arizona University, in a recent Arizona Daily Sun article.
He found this to be the case while studying the burned slopes of Schultz Peak — which have shown little pine recovery since the fire in 2010.
I got to visit Bob Hoffa, manager of the Nature Conservancy Hart Prairie Preserve, the other day. Driving up 151 in the morning, on the west side of the mountain, well, the place just kind of sparkled. The preserve lies at the base of Hart Prairie. In recent years, Coconino National Forest has been restoring the prairie, with intensive thinning of pines that have encroached in the last 140 years or so, without regular fire.
Hart Prairie manager Bob Hoffa performs measurements.
Bebb willow, a circumboreal willow species, has made its home along the various drainages coming from the Peaks across the preserve; the drainages coalesce at the base of Fern Mountain and continue on to Volunteer Wash and then Sycamore Creek — the one point on the mountain that drains that way! The Bebb willow population at Hart Prairie population is the largest in the Southwest, by a lot. Like so many plants, it may have migrated south to this area, the southernmost edge of its distribution, when the world was quite cold and wet, as in the last ice age. I sure love that imagery.
These days, most of the Bebbs are small, stout trees, with some dieback in their canopies; their trunks are often quite large, spanning several meters in diameter across the base, suggesting some very long-lived plants. There is little recruitment, or establishment of younger plants, though there are a few super wet places on the preserve where they are coming in. This is the nature of this species’ populations through much of its western range. Hard to know if it’s drying and warming, or a natural condition. So much to learn.
As other plants are losing ground to global warming in their southern ranges, like aspens, it’s hard not to wonder if Bebb is, too. We don’t know how long-lived Bebb willow is, and we don’t know if it is clonal or spreading, and we don’t know when it got here. An understanding of these features will speak to its risk here. If it is a long-lived plant, kind of like creosote bush, then producing offspring every year is not such a big deal. The Preserve is considering using carbon-14 dating to get at the age of some of the plants, and perhaps how long they’ve been at Hart Prairie.
Boy, will that be a story. Stay tuned.
Hart Prairie Preserve plans start up its public natural history walks next year, after being interrupted for several years due to COVID. Please stay tuned for that, too.
So, Schultz Peak is now sending down rocks as well as soil on the east side of the mountain with monsoon rains, while Schultz Creek has started to assert itself on the west side, as it tries to find its way to the Rio de Flag. Wild, unimaginable times are upon us. Here’s to us, Flagstaffians, and this wild world.
Mutton grass before and after raking, in a very dry year, in the author’s yard.
Gwendolyn Waring is an artist and ecologist based in Flagstaff. Her books on the natural history of the Peaks and the Intermountain West are available locally, and through Thanks to Ellen Wade, Sue Pratt, Bob Hoffa, and Elizabeth Upham for reviews.

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Bob Hoffa, Hart Prairie Preserve, checking the identity of a thistle with a plant app, surrounded by Bebb willow and shrub cinquefoil.
Muttongrass and the dayflower grow in the author’s back yard.
Mutton grass before and after raking, in a very dry year, in the author’s yard.
Hart Prairie manager Bob Hoffa performs measurements.
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