Atkin, president of Atlas Tree Service of Salt Lake City and his crew were working in the valley last week when they noticed the cottonwood tree on their way to their job site and they were convinced that they were looking at a potential state champion Fremont Cottonwood. Atkin and employee Angel Lopez, also a certified arborist, took the time out from their job to measure the tree and they realized that it was, indeed, the largest tree in the state. They plan to send a nomination form to register it with the Utah Division of Forest, Fire and State Lands, which maintains the Utah register of big trees. As soon as that is completed, Castle Valley will likely be the home of the state’s largest Fremont cottonwood tree (scientifically known as populus fremontii). In fact, it will also be the largest tree of any species in the state.
The current state champion, which was perceived to be the state’s largest cottonwood tree, is located on the Brigham Young University campus in Provo and was measured in 1990. It is taller than our tree, standing at 94 feet, compared to about 80 feet for our tree, but our tree has a trunk circumference of 515 inches and a crown spread average of 104 feet, far more than the BYU tree, which has a point value of 596 compared to the Castle Valley tree with a point value of 621.
The national registry of big trees is maintained by American Forests, a nonprofit organization dedicated to healthy forests in communities throughout the United States. The largest tree of each species in the country is designated as a National Champion, and Utah is the home of many National Champions. The largest Fremont cottonwood in the nation, however, is located in Arizona.
The American Forest uses the following calculations to determine a tree’s total points: the trunk circumference measured in inches, the vertical height measured to the nearest foot and the average crown spread measured to the nearest foot. The crown spread is measured by adding the widest and narrowest spread then dividing by two. A point system for each measurement is used to calculate the total points to determine the largest tree.
Atkin estimates our tree to be at least 200 years old and said he wouldn’t be surprised if it was even older. He uses as a comparison a tree in Salt Lake City that he takes care of that has been documented as being planted in 1859 at the request of Brigham Young. That tree is much smaller and is growing in similar conditions. I once asked the late Bill Buchanan, who grew up in the old ranch house where the tree is located, and he remembers that tree as being a mature tree back in the 1930s and ‘40s when he was a youngster. The original road into the ranch was on the other side of the ranch house and the tree was located in the backyard where the family milk cow was pastured.
Measuring the Castle Valley tree is not the first time Atkin has measured and registered trees. He is constantly looking for potential champions as he happens upon trees during his work. It is sort of what he does for recreation. He says the cottonwood trees love the dry climate and the dry sandy soil and they grow well in this area. He would like to volunteer his time to inspect the tree to see how healthy it is and get an accurate height of the tree.
I became more aware of our big cottonwood back in 1999, when a large old cottonwood tree on the corner of 100 south and 300 east in Moab was going to be cut down. The Moab public works director determined that the tree was starting to lean and feared it was going to topple over and do damage. People said it was the largest tree around, so before it was cut down I measured the tree and came up with 240 inches at the trunk. I was curious to see how it compared with the big cottonwood tree on the Taylor mini farm off of 500 West in Moab. That gnarly old tree looked like two trees fused together at some point and devoured a barbed wire fence sometime in its history. That old tree measured a respectable 426 inches at the trunk. The only other big tree that I was aware of at the time was our own cottonwood tree in Castle Valley. When I came up with over 500 inches I knew then that we had a big tree but didn’t realize that we actually had a state champion in our midst.
Realizing a conflict in meetings, the Castle Valley Town officials changed the date of the Water Study presentation to Thursday, March 17 beginning at 7 p.m. at the Town Hall. To be on the safe side, you might want to wear green since it is also St. Patrick’s Day. I understand the Castle Valley Town Council member Jazmine Duncan is also celebrating her birthday that day.