FEATURE — Drivers traversing Interstate 15 through Black Ridge are accustomed to a landscape dense with juniper and black volcanic rock, but if they ventured up a sometimes precarious and rough dirt road heading west off the Browse Exit (Exit 30), they would be in for a treat.
Along the drive, they would see oak brush galore followed by small, red sandstone outcroppings and then white sandstone reminiscent of East Zion.
The higher they went, they would be entreated to stunning views of Zion’s West Temple (aka Steamboat Mountain) and other surrounding monoliths to the east and the almost Dolomite-ish looking Pine Valley Mountains that become ever-so-closer to the West.
The landscape would then become a mixture of Ponderosa pine, Gambel oak, Bigtooth maple, Douglas fir and mountain mahogany, among others.
But at the end of the road, just like any epic hiking trail, would be the real payoff – a towering non-native tree that has been a fixture in the area since the Great Depression: The Pine Valley Giant Sequoia located approximately one hundred feet behind the abandoned Browse Guard Station.
The Giant Sequoia story
The tree is often mistaken for a redwood, but it’s really a sequoia and a native of the more humid California mountains. According to the Washington County Historical Society website, it is approximately 108 feet tall and 11.25 feet in circumference. Another source said it is as tall as 140 feet. The differences in reported height are not surprising as local writer Doug West explained in a story linked on the WCHS website that a former Forest Service silviculturist told him that the top of the tree dies periodically only to be replaced by new growth because the tree is out of its natural habitat.
According to that silviculturist, before the last ice age sequoias were native to the area. But of course, they aren’t today, West reported.
Legend has it that early Dixie pioneer Joseph Ellis Johnson planted the non-native tree, but those stories are unfounded as core samples from the tree reveal its true age – just over 80 years old. It is more firmly believed that Dr. Walter Cottam, a University of Utah botany professor planted it in 1933 or 1934 as part of the Browse Experiment Station.
Cottam was a native of St. George, born there on March 3, 1894. He grew up helping with the cattle on his father’s farm and spent a lot of time in the Pine Valley Mountains as a boy, a bio of him linked from the WCHS website noted. He was part of the first graduating class of the St. George Stake Academy in 1913, the first precursor to Dixie State University. According to the bio, he was the first person to receive a Master’s Degree from BYU. After receiving his doctorate from the University of Chicago, Cottam was a professor at BYU before moving on to the University of Utah for the next 31 years.
“He planted trees. Hundreds of trees. Thousands of trees,” a quote from his biography “Why Hurry Through Heaven” noted in summation of Cottam’s life. “Dr. Cottam’s fascination with trees lasted throughout his life. In his forays into the out-of-doors, he was always looking for the largest, the tallest, the most beautiful, the most unusual trees. He photographed them, measured them, made scientific studies of them, wrote articles on his findings about them, and eventually hybridized them.”
“He was always trying to develop new things,” Annie Jennings, Cottam’s niece, said, as quoted in a story by Loren Webb for “The Daily Spectrum” on June 21, 1999. “He wanted to see if Sequoia trees would grow up on Pine Valley Mountain. I remember him telling me he had gone up there and planted some seedlings on the east side of Pine Valley.”
Cottam thought that it would be cooler on the east side, a climate that would better approximate sequoia’s natural habitat in California, Jennings told Webb, saying Cottam brought the seedlings from Monterey, California, where he spent some summers while going to school. Webb quoted the late Bart Anderson, renowned local naturalist and historian, as saying that Cottam was trying to replicate the experiments of Joseph Ellis Johnson, who apparently wanted to use redwoods to make corks for his wine bottles.
Heber Jones, who spent a year living at Cottam’s home in the 1950s, wrote that Cottam planted quite a few sequoia trees on both sides of the Pine Valley Mountains in the 1930s. The one still standing near the old Browse Ranger Station is the only one that survived. According to West’s story, there were attempts to give the sequoia more “friends” of its own species in 1979 and 1992, but both failed.
There is, however, another sequoia Cottam planted that has survived. It is on the University of Utah campus in the northeast corner of President’s Circle lawn.
The Browse Guard Station
The Browse area was developed in 1921 as the 179-acre Mill Creek Browse Experimental Range to study the use of browse vegetation (hence its name) as summer forage for cattle, the WCHS website reported. A small cabin was built two years later but the grazing of cattle was discontinued in 1929. Four years later, however, the Forest Service approved the construction of fenced areas to keep out wildlife and stock to support deer management studies.
In 1933, the Forest Service built a road to start what became known as the “Browse” plant study to determine what plants browsing animals would eat, complete with control plots impounded by 27 fences, the WCHS website reported. A 2002 fire uncovered some of these plot areas, which were formerly covered by dense vegetation.
The Civilian Conservation Corps built a guard station and outhouse in 1934 and the cabin became a woodshed and store room.
The original plans for the area were ambitious.
“Regional landscape architect H. L. Curtiss prepared a landscape plan that included wild grape, native grasses, spruce, cedar, rose, willows, snowberry, apple trees, an irrigation ditch, sidewalks and parking for four cars,” the WCHS page about the Browse station reported.
The guard station served as a residence for rangers who early on traveled by horseback as is evidenced by the remains of a horse corral near the station. It also served as a fire lookout.
Thankfully for those rangers, they did not see any fires before the guard station was decommissioned. Forest fires would come after the guard station was no longer in use and those fires would change the landscape. For instance, in the 1950s, much of what surrounded the lower half of the Browse road was a large expanse of junipers. But after the fires ravaged the area, oak brush took its place.
Up until the 1950s, the area was a haven for deer, which would compete for forage with ranging cattle. Since there were deer in abundance, the area was also a hot spot for deer hunting with a man by the name of Martin Sanders setting up a deer camp approximately two miles below the Browse Guard Station. Sanders fashioned a cabin where deer hunters could stay and provided them with meals. Cattle ceased to roam the area in the 1960s and today there are much fewer deer in the area, partly because they are not fond of the live oak that has inundated the area after the fires of the last 50 years.
Starting in 1960, the Forest Service shared the guard station with the Utah Fish and Game Department as seasonal housing. When the 2002 sequoia Fire engulfed the area, it spared the area’s buildings even though everything around the station burned. Fortunately, the sequoia tree remained untouched as well. West noted that the Forest Service made sure it survived. Later, heavy rains in the fire-damaged area led to a mudslide that destroyed the 1923 small cabin.
In 1996, a restoration plan was developed and the following year the Utah State Historic Preservation Office agreed with the Forest Service’s determination that the Browse Guard Station should be placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
As anyone who visits the old guard station today can see, that planned restoration never took place and today the weathered structure features a sign on it saying not to enter it because of Hantavirus contamination.
Visiting the sequoia and Browse Guard Station
The approximate 7.5-mile dirt road heading east off I-15’s exit 30 to the Browse Guard Station and sequoia is not the best. The first half of the road is a bit washboardy, but a passenger car could handle it. After reaching the gate that the Forest Service uses to close the road during the winter, the route is for high-clearance, four-wheel drive vehicles only. Pulling a trailer is definitely discouraged. It is rough and prone to washouts and isn’t high on the Forest Service’s maintenance list.
In fact, in 1991, the road was damaged by a mudslide and did not open for another two years, Webb reported in his story.
No motorized vehicles are allowed past the guard station because it is designated wilderness. There are a few benches and campfire rings, but no other facilities are available such as running water and garbage service.
The Browse Guard Station is an access point to Anderson Valley, reached via a six-mile trail that starts with the Leap Creak Trail, which meets up with the Anderson Valley Trail. Webb said a highlight of Anderson Valley is seeing the old Prince Cabin, used by early ranchers in the area. Ambitious hikers could reach the Blue Springs Campground just up the road from the town of Pine Valley on the west side of the Pine Valley Mountains.
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About the series “Days”
“Days” is a series of stories about people and places, industry and history in and surrounding the region of southwestern Utah.
“I write stories to help residents of southwestern Utah enjoy the region’s history as much as its scenery,” St. George News contributor Reuben Wadsworth said.
Wadsworth has also released a book compilation of many of the historical features written about Washington County as well as a second volume containing stories about other places in Southern Utah, Northern Arizona and Southern Nevada.
Read more: See all of the features in the “Days” series.
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