That statement comes from visibly moved hiker Barbara Russell of Albany, New York, following her visit to the Prescott National Forest’s massive alligator juniper tree.
Believed to be the largest and oldest of its kind in the world, the juniper has been designated as an Arizona Champion Tree on the American Forests’ National Register of Big Trees. Sometimes called the Grandfather Tree, Forester Ben De Blois says it’s difficult to know exactly how old the multi-stemmed juniper is, except that it has been providing animals with shade and food for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years while surviving numerous seasons of drought and fire.
The Doce fire of 2013 came dangerously close to ending its reign, but the Granite Mountain Hotshots stepped in to save it. “They were able to put a fire line around it, creating a buffer between it and the flames,” said De Blois. “Their efforts were definitely successful. That’s why we can still enjoy the tree today.”
The Champion Tree is in a drainage at 6,000 feet elevation on the edge of the Granite Mountain Wilderness, close to the city of Prescott. “If you look up off to your right, you’ll see the big cliffs that people like to climb and Peregrine falcons like to nest there. There are a lot of hiking opportunities around here, too, so it’s a very popular spot for locals,” he said. It’s a special place for a lot of us.”
The site has become more popular lately because the tree was featured in the movie “Only the Brave,” about the Granite Mountain Hotshots, released earlier this year.
One week after they saved the Grandfather Tree, 18 members of the elite firefighting team died in the Yarnell fire. “A lot of people have seen the photos of the Hotshots, making that kind of pyramid structure and hanging from the tree. That’s one of the last major memories that a lot of people have of the Granite Mountain Hotshots,” said De Blois.
Prescott National Forest Fire Staff Officer Pete Gordon says the tree lives on as a memorial to them.
“The Juniper tree reminds me and many others of the dynamic environment in which we ask or firefighters to engage wildland fire. We ask them to protect those things most valuable to us as community members, natural resource managers, Americans, and humans,” he said. “The Granite Mountain Hotshots, Prescott National Forest firefighters, and the entire wildland fire community are public servants. This tree keeps me grounded in the fact that when a fire threatens the myriad of values we hold dear, the most important value at that time is our firefighters. The fact that this tree still stands today, surviving the Doce Fire is a standing tribute and memory of the efforts and ultimate sacrifice made by our friends, our brothers.”
Although there is no designated trail to get to the sprawling alligator juniper, named for its scaly reptilian-like bark, the Prescott National Forest erected a small memorial at the site to commemorate the efforts of the firefighters. The Forest Service asks that those who visit the Champion Tree refrain from adding to the memorial and leave no trace.
“The fact that they [the Granite Mountain Hotshots] protected that tree from the fire is just awesome,” said Russell. “That means so much to me.” QCBN
By Bonnie Stevens, QCBN