Forester’s Log: Ponil Creek

©Mary Stuever, May 2009


The Forester’s Log is a monthly column published in newspapers and magazines primarily in the American west. Stuever is a forester in the American Southwest. She can be reached at



                Armed with an increment borer, Arnie Friedt and I are anxious to learn about the cottonwood trees along the upper Ponil Creek. The first tree we core yields crumpled, partial wood pieces. The next tree is more solid, and we count nearly 70 rings in the wood extracted from a ¼ inch diameter, hand-drilled hole. Cottonwood cores often include false rings, and, with rotten sections of the core, this tree is difficult to age. Before we started we guessed the tree was fifty, and fifty could still be as good of a guess as eighty. As I remove the increment corer, a vile liquid drains from the hole—ranwater that has been long captured in the rotten center of the tree.               
                Next we drill a nearby Douglas-fir that has clearly established in the streamside floodplain since the last major flood. With estimates for years before the tree reached the breast height level where we took the core, we think the tree started growing in the early 1940’s. Downstream Waite Phillips had recently donated a portion of his northern New Mexico ranch to the Boy Scouts of America, the United States was entering the second World War, extensive cattle grazing was a prevalent ranching activity and the nearby Rich Cabins were probably occupied by cowboys. Yet why did this conifer start growing in what appears to have been a cottonwood dominated creek bed?

                We return the circle of colleagues scratching our head. “It might be the flood of 1941,” Chris Cudia, an ecologist from the New Mexico Environment Department, asserts. Chris goes on to explain that wet weather in 1941 led to massive flooding throughout New Mexico. That’s the year that stream courses changed paths. Meanders were lost and found. Stream side terraces were washed away and rebuilt downstream. Chris, whose passion is surface water, speaks with the same kind of awe for the power of this major flood year as foresters use when we talk about an extreme fire season.

                We are an interdisciplinary, inter-organizational team. We include foresters, hydrologists, geologists, wildlife biologists, ecologists and entomologists. Our collective experiences also yield knowledge gleaned from other fields such as archaeology and forest engineering. We work for three State agencies and three private landowners.

We are gathered along the creek to address a reach of surface waters that has been identified as being too warm. Over the next two field seasons we will work on a project funded by the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), administered by the state Surface Water Quality Bureau (NMED-SWQB), and granted to Cimarron Watershed Association.  We will install low water crossings, restore eroded sections of the creek, fence cottonwood sprouts to reduce elk browsing, and plant cottonwood and willow poles to provide more shade to the creek’s surface. The work will involve Boy Scout labor, dump trucks, fish shocking equipment, water quality probes and waders. Much of this work will be done in or near the water.

                We walk and drive miles of creek, setting stakes for photo points that will be used to track the success of the project. Much of the area burned in 2002 in a series of wildfires dubbed “The Ponil Complex.” Throughout the day, history haunts us as we read the landscape and struggle to make sense of our observations. We find an old culvert with riveted steel plates. Man’s mark is indelible on the landscape. We are adding our own. Hopefully, our actions will help mitigate the impacts of large fire on this country and leave a creek cool enough for post-fire recovery of fish species.