National Forest Foundation

How a Walk in the Desert Expanded My Mind about “Forests”

Hiking and Backpacking


NFF Executive Vice President Ray Foote reflects on a visit to Arizona’s Coronado National Forest.

Getting up close and personal with saguaro cacti last month was eye-opening. Hiking through the Coronado National Forest near Tucson with some NFF colleagues was fantastic. The amazing saguaro can live up to 250 years; they can grow to heights of 40-50 feet; and they sport all sorts of cool adaptations to their blazing hot environs.

For example, the thorns not only provide protection, they also cast thousands of tiny shadows that help keep the plant cool.

As a photographer, I enjoyed capturing their iconic profiles as well as some of the more bizarre shapes including swirling arms and crazy curves. This signature of the Sonoran Desert is captivating, and it was a treat to be in this landscape with saguaro stretching out in every direction for miles. I learned that these giant succulents have rigid wooden frames (this was a big surprise to me), and sometimes you can spot the skeleton still standing left behind. 

Not only are these amazing plants intriguing on their own, but being on this “forest” challenged my idea of what a forest really is. 

Webster’s defines forest as “a dense growth of trees and underbrush covering a large tract.”

Well, in my half-day of hiking on this “forest” I spotted nothing that looked tree-like, at least by the popular definition. It’s true that at higher elevations, I could see the saguaro thin out and pinyon juniper appear. They’re not redwoods, but they’re trees.

The U.S. Forest Service has responsibility for a surprisingly broad range of land types. There are the storied towering conifer forests of the Pacific Northwest, dense with massive specimens. Back East where I live, the agency takes care of millions of acres of deciduous forests along the Appalachian spine and even up into northern New England. 

They even manage 20 Grasslands. One I’ve visited several times is Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, as distinct from western forests as can be. There, the Forest Service (with a big assist from the NFF) is returning farmland to native prairie conditions that existed all across the Midwest up until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. We have even reintroduced bison there, to the delight of visiting Chicagoans. You can learn more here. 

Fortunately for the land and for all Americans, the Forest Service is expert at dealing with these wildly different land types.  Their talented “ologists” as they’re known (i.e., hydrologists, geologists, etc.) are highly skilled in the ecology and stewardship of various land types. For visitors to National Forests, it means we can enjoy a huge range of places, each presenting a different facet of our cherished public lands. And, now I know I can use the term “forest” a little more loosely. 

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