Alligator Juniper

Hiking Yavapai by Stan Bindell

"I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree." The poem is spot on, but some trees are more special than others.

For a tree to be special in my book, it has to meet two criteria: a unique quality, and a clear human connection.

One alligator juniper tree in Prescott National Forest meets both. The unique part is that it's the largest alligator juniper in Arizona, designated an Arizona Champion Tree on the American Forests National Register of Big Trees.

Reading or seeing photos of this tree hardly does it justice. On Earth Day I saw this tree for the first time, which brought out a "wow!" But its beauty is almost too much to comprehend. This tree stands about 80 feet tall, has five trunks, and is thought to be about 1,800 years old.

The Granite Mountain Hotshots pose with the Champion Alligator Juniper. Photo by Steven Ayres

The tree hums with life as lizards and ants make their way up and down it. Some of the trunks seem like natural seats for visitors.

The vital human connection is that the Granite Mountain Hotshots took special pains to rescue this tree from the Doce Fire in June 2013.

Seeing the fire danger approaching, Doug Hulmes, professor of environmental studies at Prescott College, informed Jason Williams from Prescott National Forest about it so it could be saved. Prescott firefighter Kevin Kieth relayed that a prayer vigil for the tree was held on the Prescott High School football field, and the tree was saved as the Hotshots did a backburn in the area to guide the fire away from it.

When the firefighters saved the tree, they had a photo taken of themselves in a pyramid.

"This is a living memorial for those we care about," he said. "A week later they died trying to save Yarnell, 20 miles away."

A large plaque commemorating them stands in front of the tree, and memorials by individuals crowd around its base. One quotes a biblical passage: "Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down one's life for one's friends."

Memorial objects and sentiments decorate the base of the tree.

Hulmes, who visited the site with me on Earth Day, always approaches the tree in silence to show respect for the firefighters.

He is writing a book about the trees of Norway, and not long ago was showing the tree to a dozen students and their teacher from Sogn Folk High School in Norway. Three men approached: Brendan McDonough, the lone surviving Granite Mountain Hotshot, and the two filmmakers from Hollywood who would eventually make the movie about his crew. Hulmes said the movie came out better than he expected.

Hulmes believes that the fire was started by tracer bullets in the Doce Pit shooting area, something that officials have never officially confirmed, and that continues to bother him. He said these bullets are illegal, but there is little enforcement related to them in the state, adding that the Daisy Fire in the Blue Wilderness, one of the largest wildfires in Arizona history, also started with a tracer.

It's a continuing worry to Hulmes that 90 percent of wildfires in the west are human-caused, often due to careless or irresponsible actions.

He says that over last Memorial Day Weekend there were 49 fires on the Coconino National Forest and 39 on the Prescott National Forest, all due to unattended campfires.

"We have freedoms, but with those freedoms comes responsibility," he says.

"Saying something is sacred means that you have great respect for it. I want to instill the capacity to understand and care," he says, recognizing that most people who see the tree show reverence and respect for it. But to reduce the risk of damage and vandalism in these sacred areas, he's careful about telling people exactly where the tree stands.

He's happy that this tree became sacred on his watch. Now he just wants to keep it that way.

Stan Bindellis always looking for good hikes. If you have one, contact him at

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