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Apache elders fight to save the vanishing Emory oak

A close up of oak leaves
Sierra Bryan
/
KNAU
Emory oak

Emory oak trees in the Mogollon Rim country of Arizona have begun to disappear. Their loss means the loss of a cherished tradition of the Apache people, who prize Emory oak acorns for food. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny reports, tribal elders, foresters, and scientists teamed up to try to save the tree, and with it, a vital piece of Apache culture.

In 1875, the U.S. Army forced the Dil’zhe’e Apache and other Native peoples off their homelands in central Arizona and marched them nearly two hundred miles to a reservation, where they were confined and given government rations to eat. Vincent Randall’s grandmother told him stories of those days: “Now in those days they couldn’t leave the reservation because they would 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.

A sparse woodland of green oak trees beneath a blue sky.
Sierra Bryan
/
KNAU
A treated area on the Tonto National Forest, where the underbrush has been cleared to give oaks room to grow.

Emory oak acorns are unique, so low in bitter tannins they can be eaten right off the tree. Randall’s mother prepared them the traditional way, grinding the acorns to powder with a metate. “When I was growing up,” he says, “the acorn was out here just like your salt and pepper on the dining room table, and whatever you ate—gravy, whatever—you just flavored with it. But I don’t see that anymore today. It’s kind of gone away.”

That’s largely because the acorns themselves have disappeared. Drought, climate change, and decades of fire suppression and cattle grazing likely all play a role. In the 1990s a group of Apache elders noticed the lack of new oak seedlings. They brought their concerns to the U.S. Forest Service.

Nanebah Lyndon, tribal liaison for the Kaibab National Forest, says, “You see these black market dealers with little jars of Emory oak powder, and everybody’s like, ‘oh my gosh, where did you get that?’ I would like to see the scarcity go away.”

Lyndon says it took time to convince the agency. Cultural resources are usually thought to be historic objects like petroglyphs or pottery. “Well, this conversation really helped us say, oh, it’s not just the dead stuff, it’s living things on the landscape, like the plants that tribes need access to, and the trees.”

A collaboration blossomed between the Forest Service, four Apache tribes in Arizona, and one tribe in New Mexico. The Emory Oak Project got funding from an unexpected source: Resolution Copper. The company has a controversial mining project that will destroy Emory oak trees at a sacred site called Oak Flat, sparking protests from Apache people. “They’ve made up their mind to move forward with it,” Lyndon explains. “But they also have been working to find different ways to provide reparations to tribes.”

A woman in blue flannel points to an oak tree that is tagged with pink tape.
Sierra Bryan
/
KNAU
Plant ecologist Sara Souther checks on an Emory oak tree tagged with pink tape.

With that startup money, foresters and tribal members chose groves that need protection. Sara Souther, a plant ecologist at Northern Arizona University, brings a group of students to a research site on the Tonto National Forest near Payson. The untreated area is dense with manzanita and other shrubs. Next to it, a treated area has been cleared of the undergrowth so the Emory oaks have room to grow.

Souther’s students unspool a measuring tape and check the thickness of the understory. They’ll measure every oak tree in the plot, check for disease, and search the ground for new seedlings.

A close up of someone's hands holding a measuring tape to the forest floor
Sierra Bryan
/
KNAU
Anna Jackson stretches a measuring tape from the center of the experimental plot.

Souther says, “Basically we crunch all of these numbers and can tell if these populations are increasing in size, remaining stable at a particular population growth, or declining.” It’s the first year of data collection. Souther doesn’t yet know how the treated stands are faring, comparing to those still choked with brush.

But the data, she says, is only part of the project’s value. “I’ve gotten a whole new perspective of this entire landscape from our tribal partners….and everyone is so spiritual,” she says. Meetings often begin with prayer and include a shared meal of acorn stew.

A group of people crowd around a T-post in an oak woodland.
Sierra Bryan
/
KNAU
Anna Jackson (center) stands by the T-post marking the center of an experimental plot.

Anna Jackson, a citizen of the Yavapai Apache Nation, says it’s her favorite dish and a reminder of days she spent gathering acorns with her grandmother, years ago. “I had a little bucket she gave me, I’d throw it in my little bucket, and when I fill up my bucket I’d pour it in the gunnysack,” she remembers.

Such abundant harvests now seem like a dream. But because of this project, Jackson says she hopes to have the chance to gather acorns with own grandchildren one day.

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Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.