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Life in the Pondos
by Damian Fagan

Damian Fagan's blog

At times summer’s heat can be too hot to handle in Moab. Fortunately, when the mercury rises towards the century mark, one can find relief up high. In the mountains, that is.

Travel from Moab up into the forests means one can deduct three degrees for every 1000 feet of vertical gain. That means when Moab is a toasty 98˚F the temperature up on Fisher Mesa or around Buckeye Reservoir might be under 90˚F. Or cooler thanks to a mountain breeze.

The nearby La Sal Mountains offer a sanctuary from the summer sun. Though the west side has forests of aspen, Douglas-fir and Engelmann spruce, I often head to the drier east side of where vast stretches of Gambel’s oak and one of my favorite trees, the ponderosa pine, dominates.

Pockets exist of these old growth trees on the backside the La Sals, but many of the forests are made up of second growth trees. Many consider these older specimens beyond their prime or even decadent; I consider them majestic.

Ponderosa comes from Latin for “large, weighty or huge” and the trees are adeptly named. As the trees age from the spindly, dark-trunked “black jacks” to the stately, orangish-barked “yellowbellies” or “pumpkins,” these trees gain girth and height.

Although known to native tribes in the West long before the Lewis and Clark Expedition crossed their lands, Meriwether Lewis first collected this pine for science in Idaho in the early 1800s. He called it the “long-leaf pine,” and his crew made dugout canoes from the trees for floating the Clearwater River. Though recorded in his journals, Lewis’ plant specimens did not make it back to President Jefferson.

David Douglas, the Scottish botanist the natives called the Grass Man, rediscovered the tree twenty-five years after Lewis’ premature death. Douglas called it “ponderosa pine,” a name reflective of the tree’s mighty stature.

Though the ponderosas are impressive themselves, the woodlands are a part of a greater habitat that includes other flora and fauna.

Abert’s squirrels are one species that relies upon the ponderosa for food and shelter. These tassle-eared squirrels feast upon the cones and needles, use the needles and small branches to create nests, and elude predators by escaping up the massive trunks. Northern goshawks prey on these squirrels and other woodland birds.

Clark’s nutcrackers, white-winged crossbills and Steller’s jays probe the spiky cones for seeds. Those that fall to the forest floor form a cornucopia for quail, Abert’s squirrels and golden-mantled ground squirrels. Those seeds that survive to germination have to contend with deer and elk foraging on their tender buds.

And if it’s not the wildlife, then it is the patches of lupine, balsamroot, paintbrush, yarrow and other plants that garners my attention. Many of these blooms add a spice of color to a verdant summer setting. The flowers in turn attract a flotilla of insects – butterflies, bees, beetles, flies and wasps that seek out nectar or pollen rewards.

So if summer’s heat becomes overbearing, head up into the nearby mountains for some relief. Your body and spirit will appreciate the coolness and sweetness of life in the pondos.





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