The roots of greatness: Four tree-mendous giants hold national crown for size

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More than a century ago, about the time New Mexico became a state, a Goodding black willow sapling emerged naturally — or was planted by a resident — along an earthen irrigation ditch near the center of Taos.

It survived through drought, lightning, pests and heavy snows. When the tree was small, Taos was still a village largely of Spanish- and Tiwa-speaking farmers, ranchers and merchants. As the willow grew over the decades, the town, with families that could trace their lineage back generations, became a haven for artists, hippies and ski buffs.

By the time arborist Paul Bryan Jones began caring for the Goodding black willow, it towered 110 feet tall. The willow’s trunk had fattened to 29 feet in circumference, and its branches spread nearly 95 feet from leaf tip to leaf tip.

“It’s a blessing to have a tree of that age and stature and height here in town,” said Jones, who has run a tree business for 20 years.

Jones nominated the black willow in 2010 as a state and national champion with the nonprofit American Forests, which tracks champion trees among 900 species in all 50 states. The willow has held the national crown for its species since then. It is one of four national champion trees in New Mexico. The state had a fifth champion — a gigantic Rio Grande cottonwood in Albuquerque that measures 393 inches around — but that tree lost its national crown recently to a Rio Grande cottonwood in Durango, Colo.

“When the black willow tree was designated the state champion, I knew our unique high desert plateau was and is resilient for trees,” Jones said. “I started hunting for more big trees. We have some of the largest, oldest trees species in the Southwest.”

Champion trees earn points based on their height from ground to top of the crown, the size of the trunk and the spread of the branches. The measurements of nominated potential champions are also checked by the members of the National Cadre of Tree Measuring Experts.

Joe Duckworth, manager of urban forest programs for American Forests, said New Mexico’s champion Rio Grande cottonwood was dethroned because it was determined by National Cadre members to be multistemmed. American Forests only recognizes champions with a single trunk.

Richard Cordova, who owns the backyard along the Rio Grande in Albuquerque where the disgraced cottonwood resides, sounded disappointed when he learned from a reporter that his tree was no longer considered the national champ. “No one told me,” said Cordova, who went inside his house to find the 2012 certificate proclaiming his 84-foot-tall Rio Grande cottonwood as the New Mexico champion.

About 200 tree species have no champion nominated. “One sort of esoteric strategy is finding a tree of one of those species, because the first one in will be the champ,” said Lea Sloan of American Forests.

Jones is among a handful of big tree hunters around the country who look for and measure these champions.

In an email, Sloan said, “They come in all shapes and sizes, men, women, retirees, science teachers or professors and former teachers, trigonometry whizzes (helps with the math on more complicated trees), state foresters and former state foresters, father-son teams — (no mother daughter teams that I know of). It is like a real-life treasure hunt that people can pursue on their own time, anywhere.”

One Virginia pair of big tree hunters, retired biology teacher Byron Carmean and retired park ranger Gary Williamson, hold the record for finding the most champion trees so far. The duo found Big Mama, a bald cypress estimated to be 1,000 years old, along with 37 acres of old-growth forest in the midst of a heavily logged region.

Florida has the most champion trees — 125 — mainly due to to the state’s size and more unique species, Duckworth said.

States can take their champions pretty seriously, said Jennifer Dann, urban and community forest program director for the New Mexico State Forestry Division. New Mexico wrested the Rio Grande cottonwood title away from Texas a few years ago.

“Of all the species, the Rio Grande cottonwood is very special to us,” Dann said. “New Mexico and Texas battle quite viciously over this category.”

Arborists and foresters are among the most devoted big tree hunters. And Dann said it takes devoted tree lovers like Jones and his fellow Taos arborist John Ben Wright to not only find champion trees but to champion forests in towns and communities.

“Everybody loves to plant a tree, but nobody wants to maintain a tree,” Dann said. “Here in New Mexico, we really take our trees for granted. They provide us with so many benefits, not just environmental and aesthetic, but economic, health and social benefits.”

“Trees are hands down the most efficient way to address certain issues. They cool us off, keep our water cleaner and our air cleaner,” she added.

She said Jones and Wright have planted an orchard at a school, are helping Taos with a forest management plan and brought a certified arborist program to the town. “They really are the tree keepers,” Dann said. “I wish I could clone them.”

Dann said there is a lack of trained arborists in the pipeline to take over as others retire.

Jones, a botanist, and Wright, a carpenter turned conservation biologist, admit they are tree crazy. They pretty much only read books about trees. The love pruning trees, planting trees, climbing trees with ropes to inspect them and thinking about trees.

“My passion is to educate every client, student and family on how to care for trees and how they pay us back with all their versatile environmental benefits,” Jones said. “I feel that trees are one of the major natural resources that can save the planet and our environment during the changing climate.”

Jones and Wright were at a home just across a street from the private property where the champion willow resides, hoping to nominate another champion tree — a Littleleaf Linden.

They stood on a wintry afternoon recently with Dann, stretching a tape measure around one of the tree’s six trunks rising out of the ground. “That’s not great news for this Linden in terms of being a champion,” Dann said. “On the other hand, I don’t think anyone else has submitted a nomination for a Linden in New Mexico, so by default this could be a champion.”

The largest trunk of the six measured 6 feet 6 inches in circumference. The Linden was 77 feet tall and had about a 54-foot spread of its branches. Dann calculated the tree earned a total of 168 points.

It wasn’t good enough. The reigning Linden champion in Missoula, Mont., has 243 points.

Jones and Wright aren’t discouraged. “We’re going to look for a Fremont cottonwood that might be a champion in Taos,” Jones said. “We have some that are over 150 feet tall, and they’re over 100 years old. That’s our next mission.”

The Santa Fe New Mexican is a sister-paper of The Taos News. Contact Staci Matlock at 505-986-3055 or smatlock@sfnewmexican.com. Follow her on Twitter @StaciMatlock.

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