Week 7, Day 5: Forest Restoration

Firefighters work to ensure that a prescribed burn does not impact the village of Tyuonyi at Bandelier National Monument. (Photo by Sally King/NPS)

The forests of Northern New Mexico are much denser today than they were historically because of the legacy of 150 years of fire suppression in our wildlands.

Today in Take It Outside, learn about efforts to return the forest to healthier conditions. Look for a bonus blog post on our website tomorrow and then join us to learn about bugs next week!

Upcoming Events:

PEEC is hosting a few virtual events this weekend! Join us tonight at 7 PM for a Stump the Astronomers live-streamed panel. Bring your toughest questions and try to stump our team of experts! Learn more and register here.

Additionally, join us on Sunday for a virtual yoga class from PEEC’s Christa Tyson at 10 AM. Sign up for that class here.

We have a variety of other events coming up in May! Check out our public events calendar to see what we’re offering and register for these programs.

Blog Post:

Read about the efforts that are being undertaken in the Jemez Mountains to restore our forests in today’s blog post, which is based on an interview with Bob Parmenter, Chief of Science and Resource Stewardship at the Valles Caldera National Preserve.


Restoring riparian areas, as we will see in our bonus blog post tomorrow, often requires slowing down running water to allow it time to soak into the ground and to avoid eroding too much soil. Today, build a dam! Find a small running stream in a canyon bottom, and put rocks and sticks in it to make a dam.

What happens to the water? Can you slow it down? Can you make it flow in a different direction? Can you see any signs of erosion around your dam? Be sure to clear your dam when you’re finished playing.

If you can’t get to a stream, you can follow these instructions to make a stream and dam in a container at home.

Outdoor Challenge (Beginner):

Can you spot the Brown Creeper on the trunk of this ponderosa pine tree? (Photo by Craig Martin)

Look for signs of a healthy ponderosa pine forest:

  • Some large trees: too big to get your arms around the trunk
  • Patches of sunshine shining through the tree canopy
  • Grass and flowers growing on the ground
  • Signs of wildlife: birds, squirrels, deer, predators, etc.

Outdoor Challenge (Advanced):

Find out the tree density of a forest near you. Historically, ponderosa pine forests might have had a density of about 40 – 60 trees per acre. In very overgrown forests, there may be up to 2,000 trees per acre!

Go to a forested area near you. Walk off an area of about 66 x 66 ft (about 30 steps in each direction). Mark the corners of your area. This will be about a tenth of an acre. Now count the trees inside. For a historical density, there would be 4 – 6 trees in your plot. Depending on where you are, you might find more like 100 trees or more! Can you imagine how a historically-dense forest would look compared to a very dense forest? How would the sizes of the trees differ? What would happen if lightning started a fire in your plot?

Tell us what you think in the Google Form below or by emailing us at takeitoutside@peecnature.org.

Other Resources:

Share Your Experience:

Tell us about the trees and forested areas near you! We’d love to see your photos, too. Please send them to takeitoutside@peecnature.org or share them on Facebook or Instagram with the hashtag #peectakeitoutside.

Join us next week to explore bugs!

Week 7, Day 4: Aspen and Mixed Conifer Forests

Aspens (gold) and mixed conifers (dark green) share the high-elevation forest niches in Northern New Mexico. (Photo by Sally King/NPS)

We are continuing our tour of forest types on the Pajarito Plateau in today’s Take It Outside post. Today, we’ve reached the high elevations, where cold-tolerant trees, including aspens and mixed conifers, dominate.

Blog Post:

Sanna Sevanto, a LANL scientist who studies plant and plant stress responses, takes a look at the physiologies of aspen and conifer trees, and how their physiological differences result in divergent life histories. Read her blog post here.


Experiment with the size, texture, and shape of different conifer needles by turning them into paintbrushes! Find out more details here on how to make your natural paintbrushes and then have fun painting.

You can paint with tempera paint on paper, or you can make mud outside and try painting with that!

Outdoor Challenge (Beginner):

Collect several different types of pine cones, berries, or fruit from a nearby natural area, as well as a small branch with needles or leaves from each tree. Mix up the pine cones and branches. Now try matching the branches to the pine cones! Check the trees to see if you were right.

You can use PEEC’s tree guide to learn more about each tree.

Outdoor Challenge (Advanced):

The bright green leaves of aspen trees are a welcome sight in spring. Aspens are among the first trees to regrow after a fire. (Photo by Siobhan Niklasson)

Look for signs of forest succession. In the blog post, we learned that some trees require a lot of light, whereas others can grow patiently in the shade of other trees. Over hundreds of years, the dominant species in a forest community may change. Can you find any of the following signs?

  • Is there evidence of an ecological disturbance, such as fire or clearing?
  • Do you see wildflowers or weeds, often the first colonizers after a disturbance?
  • Do you see stands of trees that all appear to be about the same size and age?
  • Can you find trees growing in the shade of other trees?
  • Are there any trees that are starting to outgrow their shade?

Other Resources:

Share Your Experience:

Tell us about the trees and forested areas near you! We’d love to see your photos, too. Please send them to takeitoutside@peecnature.org or share them on Facebook or Instagram with the hashtag #peectakeitoutside.

Join us tomorrow to learn about forest restoration!

Lifestyles of High-Elevation Trees

Conifer trees in a mature, high-elevation forest. Conifers grow slowly and can live for hundreds of years. (Photo by Beth Cortright)

By Sanna Sevanto

Springtime in aspen and mixed-conifer forests brings many shades of green. On south-facing slopes, the dark shades of firs and spruces are contrasted by the bright, almost translucent green of the new leaves of aspens, while aspens on north facing slopes or in shady canyons might still have no leaves.

Firs and spruces, and also pines and junipers, belong to a group of plants called evergreen conifers or gymnosperms. Evergreen refers to the fact that they keep their leaves all year round. Conifer means that they carry their seeds in cones, and gymnosperm means that their seeds are bare, not enclosed in an ovary.

Aspens on the other hand, are deciduous angiosperms. Deciduous means that they drop their leaves every year, and angiosperm means that their seeds are covered. However, whether the seeds are covered or not is less relevant for the plant’s lifestyle than other differences that stem from these groupings.

All plants make their food in a process called photosynthesis where they take carbon dioxide from the air, and use sunlight and some water to produce sugars. This is the process that makes all the sugar we eat. To get the water up to the leaves, trees have developed a special tissue that we call wood. The young wood in the outer rings of the trees, below the bark, is called xylem, or sapwood, and can conduct water. The particular structure of this tissue determines how easy it is for the tree to get water to its leaves, and how fast it can grow.

Gymnosperms like spruces, pines, and firs, developed earlier in the evolutionary process than angiosperms like aspens. Gymnosperms existed for hundreds of millions of years before the dinosaurs, while angiosperms developed only just before dinosaurs went extinct. The wood of gymnosperms contains smaller tubes than the wood of angiosperms. Therefore, it is harder for gymnosperms to transport water from the soil to their leaves.

Mixed conifer trees growing in the shade of aspens. Eventually, the conifers will outgrow the aspens. (Photo by Craig Martin)

Gymnosperms also make sugars in their leaves at a slower rate than angiosperms, and consequently grow more slowly. When growing together with angiosperms, gymnosperms compensate for the slow growth rate by staying evergreen so that they can start photosynthesis as soon as air temperature rises above freezing even in the winter. They also can do photosynthesis at lower light levels than angiosperms. Therefore, you can see small spruce or fir saplings growing shaded under large trees, and slowly outgrowing aspens that need a lot of light.

Aspens, on the other hand, compete by growing tall very fast. This is made possible by the large water tubes in their wood, and the high photosynthesis rate their leaves can produce. But the fast growth rate comes with a cost. Their wood and leaf tissues are not as strong and sturdy as the wood and leaves of spruces and firs. Therefore, aspens don’t live as long as spruces and firs, and they have to drop their leaves every winter. The leaves wear out during the summer so much that they would not be functional next summer even if the plant tried to keep them. In the fall, aspens break down and pull the precious chlorophyll (the material that makes leaves green and is responsible for photosynthesis) back to their bark and roots for storage. As a result, the leaves turn yellow. In the spring, aspens use the stored chlorophyll components and sugars stored in their bark and roots to make the new leaves.

Because of the fast growth rate, aspens are one of the first trees to cover new openings in the forest, for example after a forest fire. Most of the aspen groves you see on the mountains cover old fire scars. 

Comparing the lifestyle of aspens and the conifers in our forests, aspens are like mice of the plant world: they grow and reproduce fast, cover new territory quickly, but also die quickly. Spruces and firs are like turtles, who live much longer, but move and grow slowly. This is all in relative terms of course! A typical age of dying aspen stems is over 100 years, while spruces and firs can easily live several hundred years.

But all is not quite as it seems. The aspen stems that you see in a grove are actually branches of the same tree growing from a very long-lived root system. It is said that Pando, an aspen grove in Utah, is among the oldest living organisms on Earth. This aspen tree covers an area of 106 acres and some estimates suggest it is over 80,000 years old.

Week 7, Day 3: Ponderosa Pines

Ponderosa pines are one of the most common trees found along the trails of Los Alamos and are an iconic tree of the West. (Photo by Craig Martin)

In this week of Take It Outside, we are exploring the forests of the Pajarito Plateau, from riverbank to mountaintop! Today, learn about the ponderosa pine, one of the most recognizable tree species in Western North America.

Blog Post:

PEEC volunteer Terry Foxx explores the beauty and resilience of ponderosa pine trees in today’s blog post. Read her post here.


Ponderosa pine cones are in ample supply on the Pajarito Plateau. Go on a walk to collect pine cones, and then paint them. You can arrange or connect your painted pine cones to make animals or art! Here is how to turn your pine cone collection into a snake!

If you don’t have pine cones where you live, painted dried sticks make great snakes too. Find one whose shape reminds you of a snake, peel off the bark, and paint patterns on it! Snakes often have patterns that help them camouflage into their environment or display bright colors to signal danger.

Pro Tip: Dried tree roots from dead plants make for extra squiggly-looking snakes.

Outdoor Challenge (Beginner):

Ponderosa pines are adapted to frequent fire. See if you can find some ponderosa pines, and look for the following fire adaptations:

  • Thick, fire-resistant bark
  • Puzzle-shaped bark flakes that easily exfoliate, carrying heat away from the tree
  • Tall trunks with few branches close to the ground, reducing the chance that heat reaches the needles at the top of the tree
  • New buds protected by thick scales and long needles

Can you find a tree with signs that it has survived a fire?

Outdoor Challenge (Advanced):

The ponderosa pine grows in community with several other species. Go outside and see if you can spot any signs of the following communities:

A female Acorn Woodpecker perched on a snag in Los Alamos. Do you see the small holes on the tree? Acorn Woodpeckers likely made them to store acorns! (Photo by Bob Walker)
  • Abert’s squirrels eat the seeds and inner bark of the ponderosa. You might find stripped pine cones that look a bit like chicken drumsticks lying on the ground. The squirrels also eat and distribute the spores of ectomycorrhizal fungi that grow in a symbiotic relationship with ponderosas: the fungus grows around the root tips of the tree, helping it to access nutrients in the soil. In exchange, the fungus gets sugars from the tree. The symbiosis between fungus and pine trees has been going on for 150 million years!
  • An Acorn Woodpecker’s favorite food is … acorns. Acorn-bearing gambel oaks tend to grow in the same areas as ponderosa pines, and the woodpeckers harvest acorns from the oaks in late summer and store the acorns for the rest of the year in standing dead ponderosa pines. These trees are called granaries, and can contain up to 50,000 acorns! You’ll see dead trees pocked with acorn-sized holes, and guarded by family groups of Acorn Woodpeckers.

Other Resources:

Share Your Experience:

Tell us about the trees and forested areas near you! We’d love to see your photos, too. Please send them to takeitoutside@peecnature.org or share them on Facebook or Instagram with the hashtag #peectakeitoutside.

Join us tomorrow to explore aspen-mixed conifer forests!

Week 7, Day 2: Piñon-Juniper Woodlands

The cone and needles of a piñon pine tree. (Photo by Craig Martin)
Western Bluebirds gathered in the top of a juniper tree. (Photo by Bob Walker)

Welcome to Take It Outside! We are continuing our tour of the forests of Northern New Mexico by focusing on the most common forest type in our state: the piñon-juniper woodland. These trees are generally found at higher elevations than cottonwood trees, but lower elevations than our ponderosa pines.

Piñon and juniper trees have many uses for humans, for wildlife, and for science. Learn about some of them in today’s post.

Blog Post:

Biologist and PEEC member Ruth Lier explores the sneeze-inducing world of juniper pollen and how pollen is used scientifically in both local and global studies. Read today’s blog post here.


A juniper hairstreak butterfly. (Photo by Craig Martin)

The juniper hairstreak butterfly is uniquely adapted to rely on juniper trees for survival. A female butterfly lays a single egg on the tip of each branch, and when the caterpillar hatches, it camouflages perfectly with the tree’s needles. As the caterpillar grows, it eats only juniper needles.

Role-play the life cycle of a butterfly and its incredible connection with its host plant by building a simple obstacle course in your own yard.

Outdoor Challenge (Beginner):

A boy harvests piñon, the seeds of the piñon tree, to eat. Piñon are harvested in the fall and are an important and delicious part of local food traditions. (Photo by Danielle Martinez)

Adopt a tree. Find a tree near your house. Get to know your tree in the following ways:

  • Make a crayon rubbing of the bark and leaves for your nature journal
  • Use a string or measuring tape to measure the circumference of the tree trunk
  • Describe the smell of the tree and its needles or leaves
  • Listen to the tree sway in the wind
  • Sit with the tree and imagine the world from the tree’s perspective

Outdoor Challenge (Advanced):

Explore the various uses of trees by wildlife in your area. Can you find examples of the following?

  • Pollinators visiting trees
  • Evidence that fruit and seeds have been eaten by wildlife
  • Birds and squirrels nesting in trees
  • Animal burrows among the roots of trees
  • Cavity excavation by woodpeckers in dead trees
  • Beetles and other decomposers breaking down dead trees

Other Resources:

  • Visit PEEC’s online Tree Guide to learn more about the trees found in and around Northern New Mexico.
  • Check out this 4-minute video to see how paleoclimatologists have used pollen data to recreate a climate history for the Valles Caldera.
  • Learn about other ways scientists use natural records to determine global climate history in this resource from environmental photographer Gary Braasch.

Share Your Experience:

Tell us about the trees and forested areas near you! We’d love to see your photos, too. Please send them to takeitoutside@peecnature.org or share them on Facebook or Instagram with the hashtag #peectakeitoutside.

Join us tomorrow to explore ponderosa forests!

Week 7, Day 1: Cottonwood Riparian Areas

Los Luceros Historic Site is home to picturesque old-growth cottonwood trees. (Photo by Carly Stewart)

Welcome to week seven of Take It Outside! This week, we are focusing on the forests of Northern New Mexico. Different species of trees dominate at different elevations around our state, and this week, we will explore some of the forest types you can find on and around the Pajarito Plateau.

Whether or not you have the type of forest we are discussing near you, you should still be able to do each day’s activities. Today, we are learning about riparian areas dominated by cottonwood trees, also known by the Spanish word bosque! In Los Alamos County, you can hike down the Blue Dot or Red Dot trail to visit our riparian zone.

If you haven’t already, please share your feedback on Take It Outside with us by filling out this evaluation form.

Blog Post:

Riparian areas have the highest biodiversity of all biomes in New Mexico. Our friends at Los Luceros Historic Site in Alcalde prepared this lesson about the riparian area on their beautiful property on the banks of the Rio Grande. Click through the slides and photos to learn about the ecology of this area.

If you haven’t visited Los Luceros yet, be sure to check it out when they reopen!


Many animals take advantage of the shade, clean water, and food available in our local riparian areas. The connections between different species help to balance populations and resource use.

Build your own web of life for the riparian areas in Northern New Mexico. Include some of your favorite water-loving species! 

Cut pictures from magazines or draw pictures to use in this paper plate web. Connect the species with yarn to show who eats whom. How many different ways can you find to connect animals and plants?

Find PEEC’s instructions for this activity here.

Outdoor Challenge (Beginner):

You might find unique birds — like this Summer Tanager at Los Luceros — in cottonwood riparian areas. (Photo by Bob Walker)

Organisms play different roles in a food web. Producers (plants) use energy from the sun to make their own food. Consumers eat other living things, and decomposers eat dead things.

Pretend to be a producer and soak up the sun!

Pretend to be a consumer: what would you eat in the wild?

Pretend to be a decomposer: dig in plant litter on the ground to find things to eat.

Outdoor Challenge (Advanced):

Cottonwood riparian areas can be accessed by relatively flat and scenic trails, like this one in the bosque of Albuquerque. (Photo by Rachel Landman)

With high biodiversity comes a complex food web! Go to an outdoor area near you, and look for the following:

  • Producers (plants)
  • Primary consumers (those that eat plants)
  • Secondary or Tertiary consumers (those that eat things that eat plants)
  • Decomposers (those break down dead matter)

Write or draw the producers, consumers, and decomposers you find in your nature journal or on a piece of paper, and start drawing lines between them to represent trophic relationships (who eats whom) between the various parts of the food web.

Other Resources:

Share Your Experience:

Tell us about the trees and forested areas near you! We’d love to see your photos, too. Please send them to takeitoutside@peecnature.org or share them on Facebook or Instagram with the hashtag #peectakeitoutside.

Join us tomorrow to explore piñon-juniper forests!