San Pedro cottonwood tree

The Fremont cottonwood tree west of the San Pedro House

Cochise County residents have grown fond of the large Cottonwood trees that grow near the San Pedro House, the visitor contact station for this birding mecca, The San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area and is operated by the Bureau of Land Management in association with Friends of the San Pedro River. These trees provide a cool, shady canopy under which visitors can enjoy a respite from summer heat and are a perfect place to begin spotting many species of birds. People have been married under the larger tree, just west of the house, families have picnicked there and it is the site of an annual celebration of Bilbo’s Birthday Party.

The two large trees that bracket the house are Fremont cottonwoods, among the largest trees in Arizona. Cottonwoods grow rapidly into the stately trees we know and enjoy. The tree behind the house was planted in 1956, as recounted by Betty Foster Escapule in her book, The Five Fosters, her account of growing up in the San Pedro House. The tree west of the house is estimated to be approximately 100 years old. Cottonwoods need to have a water source no more than 3 meters below the surface in order to survive. While cottonwoods grow quickly, they are also relatively short lived — on average 50-150 years. Compared to redwoods, that is very young indeed.

Both of these cherished trees are showing their age. The tree behind the house, which overhangs the roof, recently dropped a large limb on the house, necessitating costly repairs. The health of the older tree, west of the San Pedro House, has changed dramatically and it appears that it is succumbing to old age. While we recognize the value that all of us, visitors and residents of the area alike, place on these trees, we cannot alter their natural lifecycle and must respond as they begin to present a safety hazard. It is normal that trees like this eventually die. It is possible that these trees are being harmed by the depletion of the water table that is occurring in this part of the San Pedro River Valley.

The Bureau of Land Management is engaged in ensuring the safety of visitors to the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area. A fence, now in place around the older tree to the west of the house, is a necessary safety measure while the BLM identifies the best solution regarding these trees.

The BLM has issued this statement regarding the trees:

The Bureau of Land Management, Tucson Field Office is directing visitors to exercise caution around cottonwood trees located near the San Pedro House on Highway 90 within the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area. Recent weather events have caused one of the trees to unexpectedly lose limbs, resulting in damaging a portion of the San Pedro House roof.

The BLM is advising that all visitors stay out from underneath the largest tree to the west of the San Pedro House at this time and refrain from climbing on it.

The safety of visitors is the BLM’s first priority.

What is being done: A fence was installed around the largest tree in January. Due to its advanced age, this tree is most susceptible to losing limbs in a way that may pose a risk. A long-term plan for the trees has not been determined. Future steps such as pruning or tree removal are being evaluated with the help of a professional arborist. The BLM will notify visitors once a decision has been made.

For questions or concerns: Contact the BLM Tucson Field Office at (520) 258-7200 or TFOWEB_AZ@blm.gov.

The Friends of the San Pedro River are committed to the preservation of the resources of the River, including these cottonwoods. We fully understand and appreciate the affection that is attached to these lovely trees. However, those of you that do love these trees need to be prepared for the changes that are coming. This will likely entail pruning and reshaping the tree that overhangs the house and more severe pruning that may lead to the removal of the stately tree to the west. Sad though this is, it is part of the natural order as these fast-growing trees complete their natural life cycle.

 

Robert Weissler is the President of the Friends of the San Pedro River. He is a long-term resident of the Sierra Vista area. Robert worked as a software engineer for the RAND Corporation and for a local defense contractor supporting Fort Huachuca. He is an avid naturalist and bird watcher who promotes good stewardship of our public lands and is engaged in conservation issues in our area.