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The Fort Valley Experimental Forest

Two photos show an area of ponderosa pine near the Fort Valley Experimental Forest Station. The top image was taken in 1909. The bottom image was taken in 1938, and shows the growth of many new ponderosa pine seedlings. The increase in the number of new trees is mainly attributed to grazing exclsion and fire suppression.

Forester Gustaf Adolph Pearson wrote this in his journal in April 1936, nearly 30 years after his initial visit to Fort Valley, Arizona.
It was a sultry afternoon in August 1908. Raphael Zon, then chief of Silvics in the Forest Service, had come to Flagstaff to select a location for what was to be the first forest experiment station in the United States. Zon, Willard Drake (Coconino National Forest), and I were urging our phlegmatic livery stable cayuses over the road to Fort Valley to examine a site that had been recommended by Frank Pooler, supervisor of the Coconino National Forest. Two miles short of our destination a thunderstorm crashed upon us in true Arizona style. The downpour was more violent than usual, so we took shelter in a large barn of the old A-1 Cattle Company. When we emerged an hour later, the normally dry Rio de Flag was running a hundred yards wide with a fluid whose color and consistency told plainly that the country was going to the dogs even in that early day. After crossing the “river,” it was only half a mile to the area we had come to see — a beautiful stand of ponderosa pine. “Here” said Zon, “we shall plant the tree of research.”
The men sought a location to study the predominant tree of the Southwest — the stately ponderosa pine, which was not regenerating. The Riordan brothers, Flagstaff sawmill operators, faced with a fast-depleting resource, foresaw catastrophe and asked for guidance from their friends in government agencies, including the youthful Forest Service. Before long, restrictions were placed on forest uses, which stopped unlimited access. Attention turned toward learning about forest sustainability, and Pearson was placed in charge of studying silviculture, the management of trees. He was so meticulous that he recognized right away the erosion that was occurring from severe logging and grazing practices. He worked alone those first months and planted a nursery, established meteorological sites at several spots near the station to record climatic information and devised experiments that would teach him how a ponderosa pine forest regenerates. He came to know, nurture, and revere thousands of trees over his three decades as a Southwestern scientist.
By the next spring, he was joined by other researchers who would one day be listed in a “Who’s Who” in American forestry. Human limitations were their only restrictions. They proposed to study natural and artificial regeneration, the impact of weather on seedlings, seed sprouting, uses of forest products, disease and insect control, methods of tree harvesting in a manner that provided lumber without destroying the forest, and wildlife and livestock effects on regeneration.
Research expanded geographically and topically to other areas of the Southwest as experimental plots were established in the forests in New Mexico, desert areas of southern Arizona, and transition zones near Roosevelt Lake. In 1927, Fort Valley’s research scope grew to include watershed and range studies, and in 1930, the USFS Southwestern Research headquarters moved from Fort Valley to Tucson. It moved again in the 1950s to Fort Collins, Colorado, when the Southwestern Station merged with Rocky Mountain Research Station.
Forest and range researchers test, document, analyze, and write their conclusions about scientific results of projects designed to understand resource perpetuity. In Pearson’s day, the accepted forest preservation theory was a mix of planting trees and squelching fire.
However, current thought is to encourage fire to maintain a healthy forest — an idea that evolved from experiments conducted at Fort Valley 15 years ago. A century from now, another preferred method to insure sustainability may be in use. Southwest forest and range research has been, and continues to be, extremely vital.
Even after nearly a century of inspection, lessons are still being learned. Pearson noted that 200 to 300 years are required to fully document a tree’s life cycle. A tree he planted in 1908 is now middle-aged and many influences will still impact that tree through its lifetime.
The Fort Valley Experimental Forest Station is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and some buildings are undergoing renovation in preparation for a centennial celebration in 2008. The charming site, with its cluster of buildings, resonates of a bygone era. The records, including photos, reports, maps, and correspondence pertaining to 98 years of USFS Southwestern research are maintained for today’s scientists.
A current digitization project is adding hundreds of historic photographs to the Internet (http://www.rmrs.nau.edu/imagedb). The photos document changes through the 20th century while providing proof of the impact that different conservation techniques have on the landscape.
Susan Deaver Olberding, Historian/Archivist, Fort Valley Experimental Forest Station. Photos courtesy of the USFS Fort Valley Experimental Station archives.

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