As I make my way up from North Boulder Creek, I come to a trail junction. I could head up the old mining road, but decide instead to go left up a steep slope. I want to see my favorite tree.
The Rosy Tree
Both its size and color help it stand out among the rest of the forest. Surrounded by scraggly aspen and some skinny lodgepole pine, the Ponderosa stands like a sentinel guarding over the wilderness. It is aptly named with its red bark contrasting against the dark brown and grays of the other trees. Rosa is the Spanish word for red.
But my favorite part of visiting the Ponderosa is to burrow my nose in the bark. The smell of butterscotch overwhelms my nostrils as I inhale. It’s easy to identify the Ponderosa. Not only is the red bark a giveaway, but it is the only pine that grows in the Rockies with bundles of three needles. And its cones have a distinct prickly feeling to them when you roll them in the palm of your hand.
This Pondo is so large I can’t even wrap my arms around its trunk. But it is a rarity in this area. There are few old growth Ponderosa along the Front Range of Colorado.
Lack of Old Growth Forest
Around Nederland, most of the forest including the Ponderosa were cut during the mining booms. As towns sprang up, workers took the trees not only to build the town buildings, but also to run the mills. In fact, the silver mill that led to Nederland’s founding burned up to 250 cords of wood per month during peak production. Historic photos from the turn of the century show most of the slopes are completely denuded of forest.
It’s not just through mining that people have threatened old growth Ponderosa. By suppressing fire, we have changed how the forest grows. Ponderosa flourish on dry, sunny south-facing slopes where their long tap roots provide moisture. Their thick, red bark helps protect them from fire, so they can survive when other more flammable species like pine burn. For hundreds of years, a cycle of natural, low level fires reduced competition around them, allowing them to grow in spacious, park-like stands.
Suppressing fire allows other species like Douglas-fir to move in. Doug-fir is a very shade tolerant species that grows well with less sunlight, and they can eventually crowd the Ponderosa out.
How my tree survived is anyone’s guess. Perhaps the steep slope it is located on helped it avoid detection. It is also near a rocky outcropping where few others tree grow, allowing it plenty of sunlight and water. A forester who works with Boulder County told me its one of the biggest Ponderosa Pines in the entire county.
As I stare up among its towering crown, I wonder how old it is. The oldest of Ponderosa can live up to 500 years old. I hope that Mother Nature treats my tree with kindness so that others in my neighborhood will get a glimpse of the primeval Ponderosa.