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Encore: Apache tribes in Arizona are leading the way in saving Emory oak trees

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Emory oak trees are dying in Arizona, stricken by drought and climate change and decades of fire suppression and cattle grazing. The trees' acorns have been a culinary resource for the Apache peoples in the region. And as Melissa Sevigny with member station KNAU reports, Apache tribes are leading an initiative to try to save them.

MELISSA SEVIGNY, BYLINE: When he was a child, Apache elder Vincent Randall heard about the vital cultural importance of Emory oak acorns from his grandmother. In the late 1800s, she and other Dil'zhe'e Apache were confined on a reservation far from their ancestral lands, where she told him they were given government rations to eat.

VINCENT RANDALL: Now, in those days, they couldn't leave the reservation because they'd get hunted down and shot. But she said, we still wanted our own food. So she said, we'd sneak off on a moonlit night and pick acorns.

SEVIGNY: The acorns were a big part of Randall's childhood. He'd gather them with his mother and watch as she ground them to powder.

RANDALL: When I was growing up, the acorn was out here just like your salt and pepper on the dining room table. And you just flavored it with it. But I don't see that anymore today.

SEVIGNY: Randall is the cultural manager for the Yavapai-Apache Nation and a leader in the effort to preserve the Emory oak. That began almost 30 years ago, when Apache elders started to notice a lack of new oak seedlings. In the 2000s, they brought their concerns to the U.S. Forest Service. Nanebah Lyndon is a tribal liaison for the agency.

NANEBAH LYNDON: Initially, the Forest Service reaction was like, well, what about them?

SEVIGNY: Lyndon says the Forest Service usually thinks of cultural resources as historic objects, like petroglyphs or pottery.

LYNDON: Well, this conversation really helped us say, oh, well, it's not just the dead stuff; it's like, you know, living things on the landscape, like the plants that tribes need access to and the trees.

SEVIGNY: A partnership to save the trees was started in 2018 between the Dil'zhe'e Apache, the Forest Service and ecologists at Northern Arizona University. It's grown to include five Apache tribes. A tribal council established to advise the group said they didn't want to plant trees in new locations since some Apaches believe the Creator placed the oak groves where they're meant to be. Instead, the Forest Service decided to clear unnaturally thick brush from groves the council selected.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS ON GRAVEL)

SEVIGNY: That work began on the Tonto National Forest last year. Now, scientists are collecting the first data to see how the oaks are faring.

SARA SOUTHER: Yeah, so this is one of our first treatment areas.

SEVIGNY: Plant ecologist Sara Souther checks on the research site with a group of students and Apache tribal members.

SOUTHER: But if you look around on the trees, any Emory oaks should have a tag.

SEVIGNY: They'll measure those oaks, check for disease and search the ground for new seedlings.

SOUTHER: Basically, we crunch all of these numbers, and we can tell whether these populations are increasing in size, remaining stable at a particular population growth or declining.

SEVIGNY: Future work might include not just thinning the overgrown woodlands but also doing prescribed burns or fencing groves away from cattle. Anna Jackson is a citizen of the Yavapai-Apache Nation designated to monitor today's fieldwork. It reminds her of acorn harvests from her childhood.

ANNA JACKSON: I remember going out with my grandparents and doing collecting. And I'd be playing around, and my grandma'd say, help pick. There's lots here.

SEVIGNY: Such abundant harvests now seem like a dream. And scientists say that Emory oaks face steep odds with the Southwest's ongoing megadrought. But Jackson says she hopes this project will give her a chance to gather acorns with her own grandchildren one day.

For NPR News, I'm Melissa Sevigny in Flagstaff, Ariz. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Melissa grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert. She has a B.S. in Environmental Science from the University of Arizona and an M.FA. in Creative Writing and Environment from Iowa State University. Her first book, Mythical River, forthcoming from the University of Iowa Press, is about water issues in the Southwest. She has worked as a science communicator for NASA’s Phoenix Mars Scout Mission, the Water Resources Research Center, and the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. Melissa relocated to Flagstaff in 2015 to join KNAU’s team. She enjoys hiking, fishing and reading fantasy novels.