Originally Published: April 17, 2015 11:54 p.m.
Prescott College Professor Doug Hulmes will never forget the day in April 2014 when he led a group of Norwegian students on a hike to see an ancient tree that will be honored on Arbor Day as one of Arizona's "Magnificent 7" trees for 2015.
"It was one of the most powerful moments in my life," recalled Hulmes, an environmental studies professor who has researched sacred trees in his ancestral home of Scandinavia.
Two Prescott College students also joined the hike to help Hulmes record the tree's measurements for his effort to nominate the tree as an Arizona Heritage Tree. It already had been recorded as a co-champion world's largest known alligator juniper alongside another one on the Prescott National Forest.
Hulmes was telling the students how Prescott's Granite Mountain Hotshots saved the juniper from the Doce wildfire on their namesake Granite Mountain just days before 19 of them perished in the Yarnell Hill wildfire about 30 miles south of Prescott.
In the midst of his story, three other hikers approached and one said he was Brendan McDonough, the lone Granite Mountain Hotshots survivor on June 30, 2013. McDonough said it was the first time he had returned to the tree since he helped save it.
Hulmes asked him to tell the story of how the hotshots saved what some call the "Grandfather Juniper," and McDonough graciously agreed.
Prescott National Forest Wilderness and Trails Manager Jason Williams, a Prescott College alumnus, had asked the hotshots to clear vegetation around the tree as the Doce fire approached. Hulmes had earlier alerted Williams to the existence of the tree.
"He said that hotshots rarely focus on saving a tree, and they even considered the protocol of cutting the lower branches, but decided against it because of its magnitude," Hulmes wrote about McDonough's story. "They dug a trench and cut back vegetation before starting a back fire that would help reduce the intensity of the fire, but left not knowing if their effort would save the tree.
"The following day they returned to find the tree singed and a flame burning on one of the massive branches of the tree. A couple of the hotshots climbed out on the branch, extinguished the fire (with water from their water bottles) and dug out the burning embers with their hands.
"In celebration, the hotshots formed a human pyramid at the base of the tree."
Photos of the hotshots hanging out in the tree and forming the pyramid in front of it eventually became public, and The Daily Courier was the first to publish one. They now are widely used in memory of the hotshots. Hotshots family members have stated that the photos of the hotshots laughing and enjoying themselves have brought survivors great comfort.
Arizona's Heritage Tree program honors trees with cultural significance, and this tree certainly embodies that description, said John Richardson, forest program coordinator for Arizona State Forestry Division that oversees Arizona's Magnificent Trees program. The state partners with the Arizona Community Tree Council and the Arizona Native Plant Society.
The program includes Heritage Trees, Champion Trees (the largest known trees of their species in the state), and Witness Trees, honoring those that witnessed Arizona's statehood in 1912. Among those Witness Trees are the Statehood Tree on the Yavapai County Courthouse in Prescott, and the Bicentennial Tree, a white oak along Cortez Street in front of city government offices.
The Grandfather Juniper already is on the list of Arizona Champion Trees, thanks to the Contreras family's 1998 nomination. They once ranched in that area and held a grazing lease on land that included the tree. The family sold the ranch in 1964 but visited the tree again last November, Cara Contreras Welch related. The two-track access is now gated, and Prescott National Forest officials have erected a small monument at its base that describes its significance.
The tree program's goal is "to increase public awareness of the value of Arizona's trees and stimulate public and professional interest in identifying and preserving Arizona's large tree specimens," the State Forestry website explains.
Anyone can nominate trees for these honors via the web at azsf.az.gov.
"We have dedicated Big Tree hunters in this state," Richardson said. Still there are some species without nominations, so the field is wide open.
The Magnificent 7 program is the newest state tree program. Each year starting in 2014, a committee chooses seven trees from each of its other three programs to highlight. Last year's winners included Prescott's Statehood Tree, as well as a Fremont cottonwood at an undisclosed location in Yavapai County.
This year's Magnificent 7 winners also include "Mr. Who's Tree" along East Central Avenue in Mayer, a Witness Tree along the historic Black Canyon Highway route.
At 10 a.m. on April 23, the day before Arbor Day, a public ceremony at the Arizona State Capitol Museum's historic Senate chambers will honor the Magnificent 7 trees as well as the Citizen Forester of the Year and communities that gain honors for planting trees. The public is welcome.
Hulmes plans to attend with Joan Dukes, who first introduced him to the alligator juniper that she and others call the Grandfather Juniper. He also has invited McDonough.
Dukes wrote that she first found out about the tree in 1975 from hiking buddy Frank Martz. She noted that it might have been a seedling when Jesus walked the planet.
Retired Prescott National Forest Supervisor Mike King is another big fan of the Grandfather Juniper. He helped coordinate its Heritage Tree nomination with the Forest Service.
"It's part of our culture and heritage now," King said.
There is a Swedish word Hulmes has learned through his research and translation of stories about sacred or significant trees of Norway and Sweden. "Naturminneupptecknane" means "the recorder of nature's memory." Surely Grandfather Juniper is such a tree.
"If a nearly 2,000-year-old alligator juniper could share the stories of all that has occurred in its surroundings, surely one of the most requested would be the heroic saga of the valiant men in yellow uniforms who suddenly appeared out of the thick chaparral and saved the ancient tree from a fire started by the careless ones," Hulmes wrote. "May the tree continue to stand as a recorder of Nature's memory and a living memorial for those who cared."
Follow Joanna Dodder on Twitter @joannadodder