Researchers protect historic orchard: How do you like them apples?

Connecting the past with the future isn’t as easy as comparing apples to apples.

But Northern Arizona University researchers are doing just that in an effort to preserve Sedona’s heirloom apple orchards for future generations. And the project is branching out to other campus departments in an interdisciplinary approach to preserving one of the most popular tourist destinations of the Arizona State Park system.

The historic orchards at Slide Rock State Park date back to 1912 and continue to produce varieties of apples no longer commercially available, said Patty West, an NAU ethnoecologist who is leading the orchard restoration effort through NAU’s Center for Sustainable Environments.

“There used to be close to 10 varieties of apple trees on the land,” West said, adding that over time conditions such as fire, drought and the orchard’s aging have threatened the survival of the trees. Just four of the original varieties remain.

Working closely with park officials and the Ecological Monitoring and Assessment program at NAU, West and her team are helping restore the park’s 43-acre historic fruit and nut orchards by mapping the locations and varieties of its trees and gathering cuttings to replant in historical locations of the area.

However, nurturing the cuttings into mature, fruit-bearing trees—while maintaining the approximately 350 existing heritage fruit and nut trees on the property—has been one of the biggest obstacles, due to the park’s inconsistent and unreliable water supply.

“By pairing the needs and priorities of Slide Rock State Park with the expertise and workforce at NAU, the partnership is opening doors to a number of other potential projects,” said Michele James of the EMA program, who, along with Charlie Schlinger, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at NAU, is proposing a water systems evaluation at the park.

“Now it’s a time-sensitive issue,” Schlinger said. “These newly planted saplings, as well as the existing fruit trees with historic value, need a consistent water supply in order to survive.”

In addition to identifying solutions for the park’s irrigation challenges, Schlinger intends to prepare a plan to help reduce the impact of storm water runoff on the park’s resources.

Other campus departments have also recognized the partnership as an opportunity to apply classroom learning to real-world situations. In just one example, construction management chair Tom Rogers is developing a project for his students to design and restore the original tourist cabins at the park.

While the NAU/Slide Rock partnership enhances hands-on educational opportunities for students and faculty, it also helps the park fulfill its mission of conserving Arizona’s natural, cultural and recreational resources. It was a point that was emphasized last June when the Brins fire in Sedona came within mere miles of engulfing the park and its historic orchards.

“Had the fire taken the orchards,” West said, “the cuttings would have saved this line of trees.”

For information about the NAU/Slide Rock partnership or research opportunities at the park, contact Michele James at (928) 523-0715. For information about the Center for Sustainable Environments, visit or call (928)523-2942.