For this week’s first post I thought I’d share some photos I took the other day while rambling around in Flagstaff’s “Dry Lake” caldera, a large volcanic crater about three miles west of town. There’s a big ephemeral lake in the crater bottom with birds and very fine views as well as the remnants of an aspen grove that died from Sudden Aspen Decline (SAD) back in the early ’00s. I’d been in there a few years ago just tooling around but didn’t take any photographs so I have no before-after shots to share.
Dry Lake has a couple stories associated with it that I know of. The first is the big ruckus that occurred in the late 1990s after a real estate developer decided to build a golf course subdivision inside the caldera. The land was private at that time and I guess he was within his rights to do so, but Dry Lake is such a unique and valuable piece of land for other reasons than just a place to build rich white people homes that some Flagstaff locals decided to try to stop the planned subdivision. They formed a group called Friends of Dry Lake and there was a bunch of back-n-forth in the courts and the County, much of it bitter and acrimonious. I don’t know the specifics, but they were able to exert enough pressure that the developer eventually declared victory and sold the land to the Grand Canyon Trust, a deep-pocketed conservation organization based in Flagstaff. In 2001 the land was then purchased by the Forest Service as part of a land swap of some kind and Dry Lake became public land. Had Friends of Dry Lake and Grand Canyon Trust not gotten involved the caldera would today just be another exclusive high-end golf course community with little or no access to the general public.
Of course the caldera didn’t completely escape development as the following enhanced zoom looking to the north shows:
Those huge homes are inside the Flagstaff Ranch golf course community. I would imagine the views looking back into the interior of the Dry Lake caldera from those houses (if they can be called houses that is) are pretty expensive. I don’t know anyone who could afford them.
The second story – and the one that I was most interested in – has to do with the aspen growing along the interior of the south rim of the caldera. Back in 2010 I attended a fascinating talk given by a couple of Forest Service people on Sudden Aspen Decline and the Dry Lake clone was used as an example of the large-scale die-off of mature aspen on the Coconino National Forest. I wish I’d saved the handouts as I recall they had some pretty good before-and-after photographs of the clone’s demise.
Here’s a Google Earth animation I made which illustrates the near complete death of the aspen**:
The angle of the sun is different in the two satellite photos so the shadows in the forest are off, but you can clearly see where the aspen died back. See the lighter colored texture in the forest shifting back and forth? That’s the aspen giving up the ghost.
The white arrows point out the locations where I took the following four photographs. Going left to right:
So that’s kind of interesting in a morbid sort of way. Almost 100% mortality. And no regeneration at all. Zip. Nothing. It’s like the clone’s root system died so quickly that it couldn’t even try to re-sprout from below ground. The finger of blame is normally pointed at elk and deer herbivory (and they almost certainly had a hand in this), but the regenerating clone will usually keep trying to send suckers up for many years afterwards, often long enough for the natural jackstrawing of dead tree boles to start dissuading the herbivores from eating the shoots. There should at least be a few forlorn patches of young saplings growing in there among the most tangled logs. But in this case it looks like the clone was so weak that it couldn’t even manage that.
This is the same thing that happened at Coulter Ridge south of Flagstaff (see my post Tending Fire for my story on that one). It’s hard to believe, but I think Coulter’s aspen got it much worse than Dry Lake did. Despite efforts by the Forest Service to keep herbivory to a minimum using fences the Coulter clone eventually lost everything except for a couple of very sickly trees standing in the far back of the hollow that are not long for this world. Dry Lake at least has a few healthy stands of live trees left along the lake shore, giving a glimmer of hope for the future reestablishment of the grove.
This post is up over 800 words, 300 more than my self-imposed limit for these kinds of posts, so I’ll quit here. However, now that I know how to make animated GIFs from Google Earth’s timeline view — watch out!
** Hopefully you guys on mobile devices can see the two-frame animation of the aspen die-back occurring.