There’s a large and gnarled tree tucked behind the Botany Building at the University of Montana.
It’s a northern red oak, and “it’s kind of huge,” Mark Lewing said last Thursday, with the wry delight of a big-tree hunter who has stumbled onto a gold mine.
Until Lewing or someone else finds a bigger one, or until this one dies, the stately tree is the largest red oak in Montana based on a formula of height, circumference at chest height and average crown spread.
But it’s no lone oak here.
More than 2,300 trees of more than 100 species grace the UM campus, which in 1991 was designated the state arboretum by the Montana Legislature. On Thursday, Lewing measured 16 of them, 15 of which he’s confident will make it onto the state’s Big Tree Register when it’s updated next year.
The one that won’t is a Douglas fir south of Main Hall. It was aced out by a Doug west of the Botany Building that has the same circumference but at 100 feet is several feet taller.
Lewing is a UM alum (Class of ’68) and retired forester from Stevensville. Since he began his quest to find the biggest trees in Montana more than 20 years ago, he has identified 98 of the 149 champions listed on the latest state register.
Counting the ones he recorded on campus, he figures he has 30 others waiting to go on the list, which used to be administered by the U.S. Forest Service but is now in the hands of the state’s Department of Natural Resources and Conservation — the agency from which Lewing retired in 2003.
His name is also beside 16 of the 23 Montana trees that top the American Forests national Big Tree list. Many of them are in Ravalli County at the Marcus Daly Mansion near Hamilton and in Stevensville, Lewing’s home base for more than 40 years.
Apparently no one measured the trees here at UM for inclusion on the Big Tree Register until Lewing came along with his clinometer and loggers tape. He took a discovery tour of campus in late August at the invitation of arboretum advocate Beth Judy and Kelly Chadwick, the University Center groundskeeper who has been a UM representative on the state arboretum committee since 1992.
Chadwick said she realized a few years ago there were at least four trees that would both qualify as the state’s largest and draw attention to the arboretum.
“I think it really is unknown,” she said. “Most people don’t know that the University of Montana campus is the state of Montana arboretum. I think this is a way to get the word out, to identify our champion trees, but it’s also just another interesting feature of all the arboretum has to offer.”
On his first visit, Lewing measured the red oak and a ginkgo tree near the Liberal Arts building. Both qualify for the state register. And he scribbled a list of 12 other trees around campus that looked like candidates.
“I know a big tree when I see one,” Lewing said. “I’m kind of on a first-name basis with all the trees on the register.”
“He just had like a kid’s grin under a Christmas tree in his excitement,” Chadwick said.
Lewing was back on Thursday with Chadwick, and later on his own, for what he afterward called “one of my best days measuring trees.”
He started the process at The Root, the hub between the University Center, Main Hall and the Oval, where a set of arboretum interpretive signs were dedicated last Arbor Day.
It was virtually in the shadow of Montana’s largest sugar maple, although Lewing wasn’t sure it could beat out the one at the Daly Mansion. He, daughter Lindsey Lewing and granddaughter Krysta Mertins secured that one for the registry in 2013.
“I’m pretty sure at best it’ll be co-champion,” Lewing said. “I don’t think it’ll knock anything off the list.”
With Chadwick holding one end of the well-worn loggers tape 4½ feet above the ground, Lewing measured the UM tree’s circumference at 120 inches, six inches (and thus six points) fewer than the Daly Mansion maple.
Next he stepped back one chain, 66 feet, to get a view of the treetop. It wasn’t far enough, so he went another chain, until his back was all but against the wall of Main Hall. Lewing peered through the glass eyepiece of a hand-held clinometer, which reads the angle to the top.
The UM sugar maple, he determined, is 62 feet high. The Daly Mansion maple is 60 feet.
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It was going to be close.
To determine the crown spread, Lewing eyeballed and marked from the ground the farthest overhanging branch on one side of the tree. He measured the distance to the farthest on an opposite side.
Then he repeated the process with the shortest spread of branches and recorded the average of the two readings. The formula calls for that average to be divided by four to reach a point total. Lewing came up with 18 points, six more than the Hamilton tree.
Final score, to his surprise and pending a math check: UM 200, Daly Mansion 198. By Montana Big Tree regulations, any tree that comes within 15 points of the champion is a co-champion, so both will remain on the register.
And he was off.
Lewing’s hand-scribbled tree list read almost like verse:
European larch by the old UC
Douglas fir by the old journalism building
Bristlecone pine at the forestry building
Eastern white pine at the forestry lab
Engelmann spruce north of Main Hall
He bagged a champion slippery elm, grand fir, box elder, English oak and a sycamore maple.
A giant Norway spruce nearly 12 feet in circumference and 98 feet tall stands near the sugar maple northwest of Main Hall. It scored 253 points, compared to the previous champion on the non-native tree list of 250.
“It’s terribly big for a spruce and a Norway,” Lewing said, though he allowed, “I thought it was going to be bigger.”
The state Big Tree Register separates trees native to Montana from the non-natives. Among the former is “Gus,” the national champion Western larch on the shore of Seeley Lake; the national champion Ponderosa pine on Fish Creek in Mineral County, and the largest western white spruce in the United States in Lincoln County.
An interactive map on the UM state arboretum website is in the process of being updated, but Chadwick says it gives an idea of the locations and sheer volume of trees on campus.
The focus is on North American species, “and then we try to get a collection of larch from around the world,” she said.
The most recent monthly campus tree tour focused on “fossil trees,” those native to North America prior to glaciation, “which is really nerdy and fun,” said Chadwick.
It featured the ginkgo, the fossil tree with fan-shaped leaves growing in the eastern courtyard of the E-shaped Liberal Arts building. By Lewing’s measure it’s 61 feet tall and more than 6 feet around. The current state champion ginkgo resides in Billings. It was measured in 2013 at 40 feet tall and less than 5 feet in circumference. Comparative points: UM 145, Billings 108.
Then there’s that red oak by the Botany Building, formally known as the Natural Sciences Building. From the Oval looking northeast in the direction of the tennis courts and Washington-Grizzly Stadium it seems to tower three times as high as the greenhouse at the Montana Native Plant Garden.
It’ll go in the record books with 275 points — 82 feet tall, 174 inches around and another 19 points for its 74-foot average cover spread.
“I was amazed that it was here and I don’t remember,” Lewing said. “Of course, I was here 55 years ago.”