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Emory Oaks: A Southwestern Cultural Keystone Species

May 23, 2024 2:27 PM | Anonymous

Author: Morgan Andrews — Artist & Field Ecologist

Morgan Andrews, a local to the Southwestern US, was born and raised amid the rugged canyons of Sedona. Immersed in both art and nature, her passion for the outdoors and artistic expression has been a lifelong endeavor. Currently, Morgan is a field ecologist at the Center for Adaptable Western Landscapes at Northern Arizona University, where she collaborates with fellow researchers on various native plant projects across Arizona, Hawaii, and beyond. When she is not working, she is either playing in the backcountry, watering her house plants, or volunteering for the CCSO Search and Rescue team. See more of Morgan's photography on Instagram: @morganandrews_photography

I've spent numerous days resting or working beneath the canopy of an oak tree, and I've often pondered…how many others have done the same? 

Southwestern oaks witness the abundance of life, from humans seeking relief from the heat along the Arizona-Sonora borderlands, deer and jaguars taking refuge in the sky islands, to the numerous insect species nestled amidst oak litter in the riparian forests of Sedona. Oak trees, with their sometimes stout and twisting shapes, can take different forms from dense shrubbery to towering canopies, creating shaded oases in the extreme environments of their range.

While oaks are often prized as a hardwood species, harvested for firewood and furniture, their value is more than just utility for human use. These trees serve as invaluable cultural resources for indigenous peoples, havens for wildlife, and are stewards of watershed health. Oaks, in general, offer sustenance, shelter, and essential ecosystem services to the diverse array of organisms that call southwestern environments home. Specifically, Emory oaks (Quercus emoryi), also known as 'blackjack oaks,' are key players both culturally and environmentally.

Within Arizona, Emory oaks range from the well-known red rock canyons of Sedona to the rugged borderlands of Mexico. The native range of this species also extends into eastern New Mexico and western Texas, then descends into northern Mexico. 

Emory oaks vary in size and growth form, but are unified in their ability to offer diverse benefits to humans and ecological communities, thus earning their status as a cultural keystone species.

But what exactly constitutes a keystone species? A keystone species is an organism whose presence plays a pivotal role in maintaining the delicate balance of an ecosystem. If such a species were to decline severely, the repercussions would be felt throughout, potentially disrupting that ecosystem and, in the case of culturally important species, connections with human communities. Emory oaks fulfill this essential role by providing habitat and sustenance for a diverse array of life. 

Emory oaks have served as a vital resource for Indigenous people such as the Western Apache Tribal Nations. Their acorns have been harvested for thousands of years and are utilized for both sustenance and ceremonial purposes. Exceptionally low in tannins, these acorns are prized for their suitability in flour production. During acorn season, Emory oak groves facilitate cultural gatherings, prompting families to gather and pass harvest traditions to new generations' practices.

Historically, The Apache Tribes have managed oak forests by dispersing acorns, promoting human-induced fire, and managing wildlife populations through hunting across the woodland landscape. The connections between the Apache people and Emory oaks were damaged when reservations were established in the late 1800s. Recently, Apache tribal elders and researchers have noted a decline in Emory oak recruitment and acorn production. The suspected causes include climate change, overgrazing, drought, and loss of Indigenous Traditional Ecological Knowledge (ITEK) on the landscape. Ultimately, oak woodlands in the southwestern United States are understudied, historically receiving limited scientific attention.

Here at Northern Arizona University we are working closely with the Apache people and the USDA Forest Service to better understand the significant shifts we are seeing today. In partnership with The Emory Oak Collaborative Tribal Restoration Initiative (EOCTRI), our goal is to "restore and protect Emory oak groves (Quercus emoryi) and to ensure the sustainability of subsistence foods for Arizona tribes."

The connection between these oak woodlands, humans, and other creatures that occupy them is undeniable, and there is a deep complex interaction that is distinctly unique to the desert southwest. So next time you find yourself sitting in the shade of an old oak tree, ask yourself… how many others have done the same? 

To learn more about Emory oak research and the EOCTRI initiative:

Arizona Wildlife Federation

PO Box 1182,  Mesa, AZ 85211
(480) 702-1365

The Arizona Wildlife Federation is a Registered 501(c)(3) Nonprofit Organization.

EIN# 86-0076994

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