169-year-old tree on Lab property gets help

Wildland fire program team noticed exposed roots

May 21, 2024

Ponderosa 1
Rich Nieto, Tom Marks and Jim Jones in front of the 169-year-old ponderosa. Erosion had exposed the root system, but the team jumped into action to save it.

The keen eyes of the Wildland Fire Program team spotted what is thought to be the one of the largest and possibly oldest ponderosa pine trees on Lab property while prepping for defensible space mitigation, part of protecting the area from wildfire.

The team had walked approximately 45 acres of forest off East Jemez Road to mark and review sections recommended by the prescription — the first step in a thinning process used to determine what areas should be marked to remain and what should be removed. In one area, erosion due to runoff was directly affecting the roots of a large tree — one of the largest they had ever seen on Lab property.

"Looking at the tree, we could tell that this tree had been around for a while," said Rich Nieto, the Lab’s Emergency Management Office project manager. "The tree was larger than the others in the area and we knew we needed to help save the roots from further erosion."

Ponderosa 2

Jim Jones pointing out the potentially devastating exposed root system to Rich Nieto. This is where the protective wall will be erected to redirect runoff.

It starts with the prescription

The Wildland Fire and Forest Management Program, part of the Emergency Management Division at the Laboratory, has the goal of protecting Lab facilities, equipment, workers, the public and environment from the adverse effects of wildland fires.

The team is charged with creating and executing the prescription—a less dense fire-safe pattern in a defined area. The result is a random park-like environment decreasing the overall risk of fire spread. The current thinning project's prescription calls for creating a fuel break and powerline corridor.

Once they discovered the tree, the team, which included several members of the Lab's Environmental Protection and Compliance Division, jumped into action to develop a plan to backfill the ground to cover the exposed root system, and to also create a protective wall to redirect runoff and halt further erosion.

Since the tree was so large — measuring 48" in diameter at breast height — they used an increment borer to determine the tree's age. The borer is the width of a drinking straw which is twisted into the tree's center. It is then removed, having collected a small sample of the interior which shows rings that are then counted to determine the tree's age. "The sample removed is so small compared to the size of the tree, it doesn't cause any damage to the tree and the tree will reseal itself," said Tom Marks, a Lab contractor.

The team determined that the tree is 169 years old, one of the older trees at the Lab. "Other than age, the rings give away information on the environment and climate. We can see wet years and dry years," explained Executive Advisor Jim Jones of the Lab’s Emergency Management Office. "And by looking at the exterior of the tree we can tell that the tree had been struck by lightning at least twice and survived."

The save

Two taller trees nearby were also bored and determined to be around 130 years old, also marked for saving thanks to their healthy state and age. The project will continue through the end of the year with the removal of ladder fuels and vegetation, to help prevent a catastrophic wildland fire event.

All three trees will benefit from the erosion control measures. Through the team's efforts to steward the land through wildland fire mitigation, they enhance resiliency and save an historic section of the Lab's forest.