ST. GEORGE — Ryan Johnson had already walked for nearly six hours by the time his goal was in sight – a towering ponderosa pine towering more than 120 feet above the ground in a remote corner of Zion National Park.
“It had rained the day before we climbed there, so the only footprints I saw all day were mine and the person leading me to the tree (Casey Jones),” said Johnson, a community forester with the Utah Division of Forests, Fires and State Lands. “It was amazing scenery, and just a beautiful tree – a well-kept secret.”
Jones and Johnson weren’t just there to enjoy the view: they had come to find out just how remarkable this particular specimen was compared to its peers in the state. Its main competitor: a 123-foot-tall, 5-foot-wide giant located in Beaver County and last measured in 2019.
By combining the height and extent of the canopy (in feet) with the circumference (in inches), foresters follow the the tallest tree of each species across the whole state. With the results tallied for Jones’ discovery, Washington County can now claim another state champion with the addition of the gargantuan Ponderosa Pine in Hop Valley.
But why take the time to test competing trees, especially when they are located in remote areas or seem healthy and intact?
Speaking as someone who has measured hundreds of competing trees of all shapes, sizes and species, Jeran Farley, urban forestry coordinator for the state of Utah, said the program highlights as many trees within city limits than in wilderness areas, if not more. .
St. George, for example, has the state’s tallest Western Soapberry, Afghan Pine, and Blue Palo Verde growing in community parks, while Cedar City is home to the tallest Honey Locust tree in the backyard. of a resident. The Big Tree Directory offers exposure to trees near and far, and its value can go even further.
“First, it showcases the tallest of every tree species that grows in the state of Utah,” Farley said. “Some of the native trees that are found in the mountains or forests are quite impressive specimens – some are even national champions. The other mission of the Big Tree program is to show the amount of species that can really grow in the State.
Promoting biodiversity is a major goal for urban foresters like Farley and Johnson, as is raising public awareness. In their day-to-day work advising city officials, business owners, landlords, tree care specialists and more, both are quick to point out the potential damage of over-reliance on one or two families of trees. trees – given historical examples like Dutch elm disease and even ongoing environmental disasters.
“There’s a beetle called the emerald ash borer that’s been introduced to the East, and it’s raging through urban forests, killing millions upon millions of those trees,” Johnson said. “A lot of Washington County’s trees are in the ash family — we’re talking about 20 percent of our urban forest, and it’s pretty much an extinction event when they get here.”
To combat this threat, Johnson sets traps and monitors the advance of the beetle species, which has reached Colorado but has yet to establish itself in Utah. He said he hopes programs like the Tree Species Diversity Grant or the Arbor Day Grant, which offers up to $10,000 to eligible communities, will encourage residents and municipalities to bring more variety. to the local urban forest.
Other threats to the survival of Utah trees, urban and otherwise, are extreme weather events and ongoing climate change. Drought has intensified in recent years, making survival more difficult when trees are threatened by forest fires, insect infestations or disease.
“One of my favorite trees was a National Champion White Fir that was destroyed in a wildfire a few years ago,” Farley said. “It was a real tragedy to discover that an incredible tree had been destroyed. In the Forestry, Fire and Crown Lands Division, we really work hard to prevent human-caused forest fires.
All is not catastrophic. There is a growing body of evidence that suggests well-maintained urban forests can literally improve the health and safety of individuals and entire neighborhoods, Jonson said.
“Having more trees in a neighborhood has been linked to significantly less crime,” he said. “There are huge health benefits. A child who grows up around lots of trees can expect an increased lifespan and better health outcomes. Trees have enormous benefits for wildlife. I know I sound like a hippie, but there’s evidence to back it up.
When seeking partners, both for the Big Tree Directory and to support Utah’s urban forests, the state’s forestry division often turns to the Utah Community Forest Council – the state chapter of the International Society of Arboriculture.
The organization is a nonprofit organization dedicated to training and supporting professional arborists, and it helps raise awareness about good tree management, Farley said. Its focus is more individual, so it serves as a useful supplement to the ongoing efforts of the state agency or other public entity.
“Having someone who is trained and knows how to diagnose and treat disease, proper tree planting, species selection and all of those things really helps with the sustainability of the urban forest,” Farley said.
It’s not just state forestry officials or trained arborists who can get involved, either. Private citizens can apply for the Tree Species Diversity Grant, join a local tree council, or even get one-on-one coaching from professionals at Utah State Extension or the state forestry agency. .
“I would like people to know I’m available,” Johnson said. “I will show up at your house, take a look at your trees and try to help you with your plans. I can connect you to your local tree or have you work on a grant to improve your neighborhood. You’ve already paid for us: might as well put us to work.
If you have questions about your trees or want to learn more about the resources available, visit the state forestry website or contact directly Johnson via email.
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