by: Meridith Perkins, Utah big tree coordinator

As the final nomination deadline approaches for the Spring 2012 edition of the National Register of Big Trees, we wanted to share a story about the discovery of one of Utah’s national champion trees a few years ago. You never know who will be the next national champion, so nominate your big tree here by March 1st.

Chris Colt, Doug Page and Bruce Bonebrake. Courtesy: Utah Big Tree Program

Always excited for a hunt, I packed my diameter tape, 100-foot tape, clinometer and camera: I was embarking on a trip to confirm the measurements of a potential new national champion big tree here in Utah. This trip had a special buzz about it. Representatives from Utah’s Division of Forestry, Fire & State Lands, the Utah Division of Wildlife Services (DWR), the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the USDA Forest Service (USFS) and a botanist were all joining together to take the trek deep into Fish Lake National Forest to recognize an outstanding tree.

The leaders of this expedition had been there before. Bruce Bonebrake (DWR) initially spotted the massive curlleaf mountain mahogany on a hunting excursion with Chris Colt (USFS). They knew they had stumbled on something special and called in the support of Doug Page (BLM), an avid big tree hunter and skilled tree measurer. The three men submitted a big tree nomination form that I could not ignore. This curlleaf mountain mahogany could blow the existing big tree champion out of the water! I had to see it to believe it.

So, on a sunny day in June 2008, a caravan of state vehicles filled with field experts turned off Highway 50 near Scipio and entered into the Pavant Mountain Range near the corner of Millard and Sevier Counties. We parked the trucks near a stock pond surrounded by some of the most interesting-looking aspens. The large, swelling buttresses of the aspen were more indicative of that on baldcypress in the swamps. The place already projected a magical feeling, and we hadn’t even made it to the champion tree.

Walking north over a small hill from the aspens revealed a clear view of Beehive Peak and a whole grove of mature curlleaf mountain mahogany trees. The champion, however, was easy to identify. Set a little asidefrom the others, our tree stood out in a crowd. It was massive, gnarly and wild. Thick branches defied gravity as they extended over a 33-foot spread. A few dead branches poked out from the regal crown, but overall, the tree was vigorous and healthy. The visible girth and spread of the tree left little question in anyone’s mind that this was a winning tree!

Anxious to get the “official” measurements, I pulled out the instruments and got to work. After careful scrutiny, we found that the initial numbers on the nomination form (16-foot high, 25-foot average crown, 148-inch circumference for 170 total points) were right on target, and we did indeed have a new national champion big tree contender in Utah.

National co-champion curlleaf mountain mahogany. Courtesy: Utah Big Tree Program

The curlleaf mountain mahogany became the first national champion tree in Utah since the fringe tree (Chionanthus virginius) was nominated back in 2001. The longest-running national champion in Utah is the Rocky Mountain juniper, Jardine Juniper, located up Logan Canyon and nominated in 1945.

In the 2011 American Forests National Register of Big Trees, Utah boasts eight national champions, including a second curlleaf mountain mahogany. This co-champion, located in Lone Peak Wilderness Area, is slightly smaller than the original champion, with a point total of 167, but the rules state that any tree measuring within five points of an existing champion is a co-champion, and the two trees share the throne. We are thrilled that Utah has, not one, but two of the largest, known curlleaf mountain mahogany trees in the nation. Maybe we should consider changing our state tree? Although, the national champion blue spruce can also be found in our fine state.

For a listing of all the national champion big trees, visit the National Register of Big Trees and to find out more about the Utah State Big Tree Program and Registry visit www.utahurbranforest.org.