The Emory oak is a giant among the pinyon and junipers of Arizona’s high country. Its acorns are special, rich in nutrients and free from the bitter tannins that make most acorns unpleasant to eat. They’re also a culturally important food for the western Apache. Ground acorn sits on tabletops next to salt and pepper shakers, to be sprinkled on venison, rolled into tortillas, or stirred into gravy.
But the Emory oak is in trouble. As white settlers in the 19th and 20th centuries claimed and occupied Apache homeland, sacred groves were threatened. Cattle trampled young trees, and wildfire suppression made the forests grow unnaturally thick. Apache elders began to worry about the absence of new oak seedlings. They asked the U.S. Forest Service to take action.
Funding is scarce for species that aren’t officially endangered. But money for the Emory Oak Project came from an unexpected source. Apaches protested when a company called Resolution Copper began digging a mine at a sacred site called Oak Flats. In restitution, the company agreed to fund a long-term restoration project. Scientists, foresters, and tribal members selected important oak groves on the Coconino and Tonto National Forests. They’ll study each one and decide how to use thinning, burning, and other restoration techniques to encourage young oaks to thrive.
Vincent Randall, an Apache tribal member and champion of the Emory oak, says he won’t live to see the project’s results. But new oak seedlings sprouting today will give acorns to his tribe’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren. As Randall says, if we care for the oaks, the oaks will care for us.