Recently Armando ("Mando") called a meeting in Rustler Park of 21 professionals from the US Forest Service, Arizona Game & Fish, and other agencies to assess the condition of Rustler after the Horseshoe Two Fire and to decide on the best way of encouraging its recovery. Reed Peters represented the newly-formed Friends of Cave Creek Canyon.
What they saw at Rustler surprised everyone. Normally after an intense crown fire, such as the one that roared through Rustler Park, the soil is sterilized by the high heat, and almost no plants grow for a very long time, possibly years. Even the mycorrhizae––the fungi associated with plant roots which allow seedlings to germinate––need to be reintroduced to sterilized soils. ((Usually rodents perform that service!) No one was prepared for the lush growth of wildflowers and ground cover which greeted everyone at Rustler Park, especially around the old campsites and the start of the Crest Trail.
How can botanists account for the unexpected growth? After puzzling over the situation, they settled on this theory: the backburn done about two weeks before the crown fire blazed through must have removed enough fuel that temperatures at ground level never got high enough to sterilize the soil.
Whatever allowed the strong recovery to take hold (and their theory sounds good to me!), botanists are seeing post-fire plants that they've rarely seen here, and the burnt aspen groves are surging with new growth. Reed was impressed with the number of Arizona (Ponderosa) Pines that still show green on the knoll above the campsites. Keep in mind that we've all been expecting the worst at Rustler and Barfoot Parks!
The Forest Service will remove dead trees in the campground, but will leave standing any that show green. Some of the small dead trees will be cut and left as firewood at the campsites. Workers will chip some trees, but not so many that the mulch interferes with the growth of new plants. The goal is to finish removing dead hazard trees by March, when Spotted Owls begin their nesting season. (Yes––a recent census of Spotted Owls in the Chiricahuas showed that not only do adults survive, they managed to fledge young this year as well!)
Spotted Owl (Pen & Ink by Narca)
Visitors returning to Rustler Park will, in time, see other changes. Ramadas are planned to shade the picnic tables, since so many trees were burned in the crown fire. Barfoot Lookout will be rebuilt on the same footprint. The bunkhouse will also be rebuilt. The Forest Service still has the original plans for the campground, which were developed in about the 1950s. People reviewing those plans came away very impressed with the skillfully designed layout and will respect the original work, figuring that the basic design can't be improved. Bathrooms, however, will be improved, especially to make them more accessible. Even brick-and-mortar bathrooms which are still standing will need to be rebuilt because the mortar was so weakened by the heat that they are a danger to the public.
New gates have been installed along various Forest roads, so that the roads can be closed easily whenever driving conditions are dangerous. A new route (a small road) to the Long Park gate is being considered, so that hikers will be able to bypass Rustler to reach the Long Park road even when the campground is closed.
Centaurea on the hike to Long Park (Photo by Narca)
Reed left the meeting (actually, was chased out by a hailstorm) feeling that the agencies' concern for Rustler Park and the Chiricahuas is genuine and obvious, and that great care is being taken in fostering the area's recovery, post-fire.
When will we be able to return to Rustler Park? Rumor is that the road to the top will open on September 24. I'll head up as soon after that as I can, and will post photos here of Rustler and Barfoot after the burn and after the summer monsoon. This news is encouraging!