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In Southern Arizona, A Fight To Save Dying Centenarian Tree

Cottonwood W west of the San Pedro House at the San Pedro National Conservation Area.
Michel Marizco
Cottonwood W west of the San Pedro House at the San Pedro National Conservation Area.

In southern Arizona, down near where glowing green cottonwood trees grow along the banks of the San Pedro River, a fight is looming between bird watchers and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management over the fate of one particular old cottonwood tree.

This tree is known in government reports as Cottonwood W and it’s somewhere between 100 and 150 years old. Nobody actually knows for sure. Its deep fissured trunk is as wide as a pickup truck is long with thick branches that swoop out into a canopy over a clearing of wild grasses, and an old building made of rough timbers.

Cottonwood W is a cornerstone of the San Pedro Riparian National  Conservation Area, a popular place for bird watching.

Renell Stewart has volunteered at the San Pedro House for 15 years. That tree which grows just a short walk away has been a big draw to her since she first started working here. This old cottonwood has been the centerpiece of many occasions here. It's a legacy, she says.

"Weddings, family reunions, birthday parties—all kinds— Bilbo’s birthday was celebrated using this as the big tree. Yes, Bilbo’s birthday. This was the location that they picked for their celebration."

Bilbo, as in Bilbo Baggins, the Lord of the Rings trilogy character who disappears after a party beneath a large tree.

Bird watchers like Stewart are a specific bunch. They’ll correct you when you, naively, ask about a passing finch. It’s a lesser gold-finch.

And they can hear the difference between an acorn woodpecker and a red-breasted sapsucker. They like the natural, untouched feel to this preserve, its birds and this tree. But Cottonwood W is dying and it’s near the visitor center where Stewart works and it's  enormous.

So as of last winter, those parties under Cottonwood W stopped happening. The BLM erected a fence around the tree warning people to keep away after an arborist inspected its dying body.

"Last 14, 15 months, branches have been falling down and when I say branches, we mean very, very large heavy va-voom of a branch, falling down," said Pamela Mathis, the acting associate district manager of the BLM's Gila District Office.

"It is buckling. It is failing. It has fungus. It has decay. It is split along the bottoms, so therefore braces will not work," she said.

Cutting down the tree is not the final option, not yet. Some 900 people have signed a petition asking the BLM not to chop it down.

Mathis worries about Cottonwood W coming down naturally, especially when so many people visit the area.

"I took my disabled mother out there. She’s walking along the path with her walker at a very very slow rate and I’m thinking wow, we have a wide diversity of visitors here and they’re not out walking along the river. They’re at the visitor center, that’s what they get to see," Mathis said. She doesn't want to risk someone at the visitor center under the tree if another limb falls.

Back at the San Pedro House, Tricia Gerrodette says along with Lord of the Rings re-enactments, this used to be a tree for climbing.

"Heck yes, heck yes. I mean isn’t that what trees are for, is to climb them," she said. "So now that is closed off. We don’t mind that if they’ll let it die."

That’s what she and Stewart are ultimately asking the BLM to do— prune this tree back a bit, keep the fence up and then let Cottonwood W die on its own.

"I’m reasonably certain that for the first time in my life, I will engage in civil disobedience," Gerrodette said.

Which the BLM’s Mathis hopes doesn’t happen.

"I say I really hope that the memories that have been fostered, the love and the emotion for those trees should be should be the legacy of the tree," Mathis said.

The BLM is taking public comment on the tree through the end of the month.

Fronteras Desk senior editor Michel Marizco is an award-winning investigative reporter based in Flagstaff.