Some fine big trees grow under Montana's Big Sky.
We just have to find them.
Hawthorne Elementary School students were thrilled to learn the bur oak that shades their playground ranks as a Montana champion, according to the database maintained by American Forests. Fellow tree lovers were less pleased at the news that a national champion ponderosa pine near Alberton might be disqualified.
U.S. Forest Service fire ecologist and Montana Big Tree Program coordinator Helen Smith put out the call this week for arboreal enthusiasts to help update the list. The new version has 43 acknowledged tree species in Montana, from the blue elderberry to the western red cedar.
Montanans know 15 more that have local support but lack national recognition. For example, they'd like to get a hybrid larch tree that grows naturally on Lolo Peak into contention, Smith said. But the national group resists allowing hybrids because most of them are ornamental greenhouse creations.
"I submit it every year," Smith said, "and they probably throw it in the trash."
There's even a hint of scandal, or at least a kerfuffle, in the listings. Seems the Montana/national champion ponderosa pine tree on the banks of Fish Creek near Alberton might be competing under mistaken auspices. The giant pine tree might not be a Pinus ponderosa var. scopulorum, but instead a Pinus ponderosa var. ponderosa.
The Fish Creek pine tree scored 455 points, making it the biggest var. scopulorum in the United States. But when some Big Tree Program members went to check on it last year, they realized it might have been misclassified. And the leading v. ponderosa specimen in the country boasts 548 points.
Points are a function of a tree's trunk circumference, height and crown spread. At least two people are needed to measure the crown, which is calculated from the widest and narrowest cross-sections of its drip-line.
"It's not really rocket science, but it's not really easy," Smith said. "Part of it is eyeballing."
Hawthorne Elementary's bur oak falls in yet another category - the urban champion. Not native to Montana, this fixture of the playground for almost a century has probably benefited from rooting near the school's former drainfield.
"We're very protective of it," school principal Steve McHugh said. "This is our primary playground, for the K-2 students. When it buds out and gets leaves, they have a place to come and cool off."
"I think it's really special - it even survived a fire," said second-grade student Mia Quattlebaun. "It's got lots of squirrels in it, and lots of acorns."
Classmate Katy Rhinehart added her father remembers the oak from when he was a student at Hawthorne.
A school history pamphlet reports that Anna and Levi Dunton owned a home on what's now the Hawthorne playground. In 1919, Anna asked an aunt to send her some seeds from her former home in Charles City, Iowa. The aunt sent six bur acorns, one of which became the Hawthorne oak.
"When the Dunton homeplace was torn down in the early 1950s to make room for the school playground, the tree was spared," the history pamphlet read. "Its deeply notched leaves are pretty in the fall after a frost, and the few acorns it bears are interesting because they are so rare in this part of the country."
The kids also like the big benches around its trunk. Third-grader Lauren Booth said she used it for art projects.
"One time we had to paint the tree," she said. "I did nests and bluebirds and robins in it, and we put in a squirrel."
As impressive as it is, the Hawthorne bur oak doesn't offer much competition to its Midwestern brethren. The American Forests urban champion scores a 414. A bur oak in Kentucky scored 444.
But other Montana trees are definite contenders. A white willow in Ravalli County is getting submitted as national champion with a score of 420, crushing the current titleholder's 363. Smith is also nominating a white spruce in Lincoln County whose 283 score edges the current leader's 264.
A western larch near Camp Paxson on Seeley Lake remains a national big tree champion at 425, although another larch in Lincoln County is muscling in with a 417. Unfortunately, both of those haven't been measured for 10 years or more.
Part of Smith's task as Montana Big Tree Program coordinator is to mobilize the group's 50-odd members to update those measurements and make sure the specimens are still healthy. At least one record-holding lodgepole pine was found dead recently, but others have been nominated to take its place.
"For some, we need to wait until the roads are passable," Smith said. "There are some people in the nation who actually spend their vacations going out looking for the biggest trees."
Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at email@example.com.