October 15, 2017

1917-1940: Twig Blight Threatens the Prescott National Forest

By 1935 the slow-moving disaster had become genuinely alarming. "The possibility of the absolute destruction of the Prescott National forest through Twig Blight disease is foreseen by officials of the Bureau of Pathology, unless intensive energetic work is conducted immediately to stifle this deadly disease," the newspaper reported. (*1)

The Bureau reported that: "Since the discovery of the disease on the Prescott Forest in 1917, it has spread from the 400 acres affected to about 38,000 acres on the Prescott National Forest.'" (*2)

"It has also spread to the Coconino, Sitgreaves and Tonto National Forests in Arizona and to the Gila in New Mexico. On these forests the areas (were) still small, covering only approximately 12,000 acres on the entire group," the report further stated. "Not only the destruction to the Prescott and Coconino National Forests, among the most beautiful areas in the Southwest, are threatened, but also the other sections of the Southwest are periled." (*1) 

Although officials knew of Twig Blight since 1917, it was located in a remote part of the forest. As a result, most people were unaware until it started infecting trees in plain sight. June, 1920 was the first time it was reported in the newspaper: "There is a serious twigg (sic) blight which is attacking the yellow pine near the Copper Basin road on the Prescott side of the Divide." (*3) 

When it was first discovered, the origins and future of Twig Blight were not known, but it was "not considered a dangerous tree disease" initially. (*1)

The story of a mysterious powder house blast at the United Verde Mine in Jerome, AZ on December 20th, 1925 and its consequences.

"Specimens (were) collected by the local forest service and sent to Dr. Long, plant pathologist at Albuquerque, NM, for him to determine if possible what measures should be taken to prevent the spread of the trouble." (*3) 

"The cause (was) found to be a fungus and not the work of insects as was first supposed." (*3)

"The blight first showed primarily on the lower branches of the trees, killing small branches on the limited area. By 1920 it had spread over an area of about 1800 acres and the dying branches were found over the entire tree. The area was kept under observation (and) the disease spread each year until in 1933 it had covered an area of approximately 38,000 acres on the Prescott forest." (*1)

Little was recorded in print about Twig Blight. Prescott was evolving from a mining town to a health and tourist town and such publicity was considered detrimental.

"Cooperation from Governor Moeur (was) requested and (the Chamber of Commerce) asked him to arrange a meeting of Arizona's Congressional Delegation, giving sufficient advance notice so that...Dr. Long (may) be present" at the meeting. (*2)

Long stated that he would welcome an opportunity to lay the facts before the members of (the Chamber)." (*2)

He suggested control work. This meant the cutting down of all infected trees to be burned along with all downed limbs. (*1)

How prairie dogs were made extinct throughout Yavapai County in the first third of the 20th century and the consequences.

"This work was started in May, 1933 and carried on with the enrollees of two CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) camps. The work was checked and found to be effective in the control of the disease." (*1)

"In the fall of 1933 (more) men were employed under MIRA and CWA to do this work. With these crews about one-half of the affected area on the forest was cleaned. The work showed that the disease could be eradicated but that only seasonal work would bring the best results. It was found that working from April until November was most effective." (*1)

Only a 2% reoccurance was found on the worked area while on the unworked area the disease doubled. (*1)

"Civilian Conservation Corps crews worked to cut and burn infected trees before the disease spread. The Bureau of Plant Industry provided the working knowledge needed to carry out the project." A total of 44,000 acres of pine were treated by the end of 1935. (*4)

Still more federal dollars would be needed. Eventually Congress allowed the funding to treat all the effected areas state and region wide. For the Prescott forest alone, it would take five additional years of field work and an outlay of $1.19 million--a large amount of money during the 1930's. (*1)

Why Did This Fungus Suddenly Appear?
The definitive answer is unclear. However, this researcher can proffer a guess: just two years prior to when Twig Blight was first discovered, a new resident appeared in the forest. 1915 was so extraordinarily wet that a "precipitation corridor" was temporarily created bringing the whitetail deer to the Prescott forest from Mexico. The fact that the blight first popped-up in the Prescott forest and then to a smaller degree in the forests north coincides with the deer's migratory route and perhaps even its timing. Additionally there was the report that the blight "first appeared primarily on the lower branches of the trees." Could this fungus have hitched a ride in the fur of the whitetail deer? It seems possible if not plausible.

The wet winter of 1915 brought a new resident to the Prescott National Forest: the whitetail deer.

In any event, the costly five year program was successful in eradicating Twig Blight out of the Ponderosa pine forests. Three-quarters of a century on, one cannot even distinguish what areas of the forest were treated!

Tourist Tip:

Beautiful Lynx Lake

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(*1) Prescott Evening Courier 12/6/1935 Pg. 1 Col. 1
(*2) Sharlot Hall Museum Archives. Verticle Folder: Yavapai Chamber of Commerce. "The Yavapai Chamber of Commerce & Immigration Commission Report of 1935".

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