Arid Advocate; Deserts, Wildfires, Shrubby Species, Amazing Finds: Such Is the Life of Arizona Big Tree Coordinator

By Zahner, Bob | American Forests, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Arid Advocate; Deserts, Wildfires, Shrubby Species, Amazing Finds: Such Is the Life of Arizona Big Tree Coordinator


Zahner, Bob, American Forests


As a kid growing up in the Southern Appalachians I loved the forests and was interested in their conservation. This interest was expressed eventually as I became a professional forester and university professor of forest ecology.

On retirement from teaching in the eastern forests at the University of Michigan and at Clemson University, my wife Glenda and I discovered the wonders of dry climate trees in the deserts and mountains of southern Arizona. From our home near Tucson we hiked many wildland trails, learning all we could about plants and their habitats. This activity soon led me to the Arizona Register of Big Trees (ARBT), newly organized in 1991 by horticulturist Richard Harris.

Through my forest research I had become fully aware of AMERICAN FORESTS' Big Tree Program. When I first joined the ARBT group, the National Register listed 16 champion trees for this state, most of them nominated by people just passing through Arizona. And most locations were in or near urban areas and along highways. There were also an amazing number of "species without champs" that occur in Arizona. It seemed to me that the potential for new champions was great.

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In 1993 I volunteered to be our state coordinator. I knew we needed to get out of the urban areas, into the mountains, canyons, and deserts. But I had to adjust my sights to the small sizes of these dry climate "trees." Even the champions of most desert species don't grow very large, and many of these are endemic to just the Southwest. On the other hand, the streamside and mountain forests are different; there we have discovered champion sycamore, cottonwood, ash, cypress, pine, oak, maple, and juniper, all trees any state would be proud to boast.

Within two years Glenda (a botanist) and I had added 10 new national champions to the Arizona tally. Our technique was simple. We already knew many field botanists, birders, federal and state forest and park rangers, and passed the word to them to be on the lookout for large specimens of any tree species. Then I consulted herbarium specimens, species range maps, and notes from trail guides. Suggestions soon began pouring in. We now have many big tree hunters from all over the state, and coordinating their discoveries has become a major job.

By 1996 we had 48 national champions, and published our first "Arizona Register of Big Trees," with full-color photographs. In the year 2000 we published our second big tree register, then with 72 national champions. In 2002 my health began to fail for fieldwork, and I knew I'd soon have to retire from my job as the ARBT coordinator. I wanted to publish one more state register, which we did in 2005 with 88 national champions (2006 total: 82 national champs).

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Of all of my nominations, the most exciting was the national champion Torrey vauquelinia. …

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