On this mid-September day, as we enter the delightfully cool and colorful times of autumn, I find myself reflecting on the many colors seen in the trees at the Valencia Soil and Water Conservation District’s Whitfield Wildlife Conservation Area.
Color changes seemed to start a little early at the riparian forest of our recently-burned conservation area. As folk may recall, the Big Hole Fire blazed through the valley on April 11, 2022, charring more than 75 percent of the Whitfield preserve, while becoming the biggest bosque fire on record.
While thousands of trees at Whitfield burned, including a dozen old majestic native trees (long live the Owl Tree’s memory), many of the burnt trees re-leafed right after the fire.
As summer progressed, we saw a curious show of colors in the leaves. About mid-July we noted leaves on a few of the recovering trees going from the typical dark shades of green to lighter colors, even yellowing a bit. Gradually, these yellowed leaves turned brown and then dropped to the ground.
Fire ecologists report that trees like cottonwoods, which are flood-evolved and not well adapted to fire, will often re-leaf after a fire, using stored-up supplies of sugars. If, however, such trees brown up in the middle of the growing season, they likely have used up their savings account of sugars, and probably won’t be able to try again next year, as the tree’s nutrition uptake system (roots and cambium) might be irreparably damaged from fire.
So, on this late summer day I look out upon the Whitfield preserve and see a mixture of contrasting colors. I see the bright green of the lush grasses that emerged in strength after the Big Hole Fire moved through the preserve.
My gaze then is caught by the ring of trees encircling the Whitfield pond, including a medium-sized cottonwood tree now turning a light shade of yellowish green, an alert that it might not survive beyond this summer.
Across the way is another cottonwood tree that a month ago was as green as could be, giving us all hope that this was another burn victim making a lasting comeback. Alas, now this tree’s leaves recently turned brown and have largely scattered to the winds, meaning this tree is apparently short for the world.
My gaze, now a little circumspect and perhaps a bit sad, catches one of the oldest trees on the preserve, and my sense of hope for the burned Whitfield trees is restored. This old tree trunk was entirely burned, as were all five of its major limbs, but lo and behold, all the large branches are resplendent with vibrant green leaves, because this old timer seems intent to sing its arboreal song a bit longer, so very soothing to my tree loving ears.
My eyes turn again to see a pair of people walking around the pond — a grandmother and granddaughter, both in rainbowed-colored clothes, enjoying nature, notwithstanding the presence of feisty mosquitoes on this cloudy day.
Mostly, I delight in seeing community members enjoying their Whitfield walkabout, as I dream about when we can reopen the entire preserve to the public. Until then, district staff are working hand in hand on Whitfield recovery with our community members, friends and other partners.
I also dream about our Rio Abajo Conservation Area, because next month, our state forestry partners will begin to reduce RACA’s dense, non-native understory of plants — work that is essential to protecting the wonderful overstory of native trees that are the heart of our RACA public lands. Soon, we hope to open public trails for walkabouts at RACA.
Until that day, we are powered by the kindness and good work of our many partners and members of the community who see the Whitfield complex as the public asset that it truly is.
- Save the date for our Fall Festival and Whitfield Under the Stars from 6-9 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 29. Come learn about owls, bats, and the canopy of night sky.
- Applications for our Standard Conservation Project reimbursement program are due this month. For more details, visit our website, ValenciaSWCD.org; or our Facebook page, Valencia Soil & Water Conservation District.
Andrew Hautzinger, guest columnist
Andrew Hautzinger has been the district director for the Valencia Soil and Water Conservation District since 2020. Prior to that, he was a volunteer VSWCD board member for 12 years and spent many years volunteering at the Whitfield Wildlife Conservation Area.
Hautzinger has a bachelor of science in watershed sciences from Colorado State University. He worked for more than 27 years as a federal hydrologist working for agencies within the Department of Interior including the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, U.S. National Park Service, and for the final 20 years of his career, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services’ National Wildlife Refuge System.