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‘Here we shall plant the tree of research’

The two-room, un-insulated ranger cabin at Fort Valley Experimental Forest used by G.A. Pearson.

On a hot August day in 1908, three men from the U.S. Forest Service rode on horseback from Flagstaff in search of a site to locate the nation’s first forest research station. Their destination was a two-room ranger cabin in Fort Valley, about 10 miles from Flagstaff.
Fort Valley was one of several possible Southwestern sites they considered for the important purpose of establishing a site that would serve as headquarters to understanding how the ponderosa pine regenerated. Much of the vast forest was quickly falling to the loggers and the trees weren’t regrowing. Local lumbermen T.A. and M.J. Riordan, of the Arizona Lumber and Timber Company, asked the Forest Service to visit and study the problem. The three scientists were looking for isolation, nearly pristine forests and a dependable water source. Fort Valley contained all three and the men selected a knoll in the northwest corner, declaring, “here we shall plant the tree of research.”
This month, a centennial celebration on the founding of the Fort Valley Experimental Forest acknowledges the important contributions of the pioneering scientists toward preservation of the southwestern ponderosa pine forest.
One of the men, Gustaf Adolph Pearson, stayed on to direct research and moved into the ranger cabin. He immediately established studies that looked at all factors affecting ponderosa pine growth. More scientists arrived over the years and buildings were built to accommodate them and their families.
Everybody who was anybody in the early USFS spent time at Fort Valley. While there, scientists learned how to design research experiments, create permanent sample plots, draw maps, write reports and accurately measure tree growth, among other endless tasks. The USFS provided camera and film to photo document forest and range conditions as they appeared when the scientists arrived.
The land around the site of headquarters was set aside by the Coconino National Forest and not available to homesteading, fuel wood cutting, grazing, logging or any use unless it was a research-related project.
By 1931, these lands and others had been designated as the Fort Valley Experimental Forest. While walking around the forest, scientists could observe every aspect affecting a tree’s life: where snow pack had bent a tree over, or lightning had knocked a branch off, or mistletoe had taken hold, or see where squirrels had eaten new growth. They were pioneers in a new field of forestry and their mission was to perpetuate the forest.
Their geographic scope expanded as roads and transportation improved and plots were established around Arizona and New Mexico. Their research scope increased as well, with range studies to study grazing’s effect on tree regeneration. Their recommendation of limits on grazing numbers and time miffed livestock operators.
In 1920, the Arizona Wool Growers Association, during a joint meeting with the Arizona Cattle Grower’s Association, passed a resolution saying the Fort Valley Experiment Station was considered worthless because “…the work has been an entire failure and a use-less expense to the amount of approximately $20,000 per annum, be abandoned and that the lands occupied by it be restored to entry…” A letter from Secretary of Agriculture Edwin T. Meredith to ACGA president Charles Mullen asked for specifics as to where Fort Valley had failed. An apologetic response blamed the resolution on “some sheepman” that was approved by weary, uninterested cattlemen who passed it without realizing what they were saying. Fort Valley remained open.
Weather records were another key component to determining tree regrowth. In 1909, the Fort Valley headquarters became a cooperative observer with the U.S. Weather Bureau. These records have been maintained continuously and provide an excellent source for long-range studies on climate change. A 1916-1920 weather study enabled scientists to install weather recording equipment at several locations from the Fort Valley headquarters to timberline on the San Francisco Peaks. This weather study augments C. Hart Merriam’s earlier work in proposing the life zones theory that trees grow at certain elevations. Wonderful photos and stories about gathering weather records from these remote sites are part of the Fort Valley lore.
Today, the site holds the same charm and ambiance as it always has. The structures are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The extensive archives show — through photos, reports and maps — range changes in the Southwestern forest through the past century.
In the past decade, most of the original sample plots have been rediscovered, measured, and photographed by Northern Arizona University Forestry professors and students. The young students love the opportunity to peruse the historic archival documents, then go out into the field to retrace the steps of their predecessors. They receive lessons in history as well as science.
The site’s second century begins with preservation of the historic campus for use as a facility for research and environmental education.
For more information, visit Fort Valley’s Web site at www.rmrs.nau.edu/fortvalley.
— S. D. Olberding. Photo (USFS photo 89799) courtesy of the USFS Fort Valley Experimental Forest archives.

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