By Michael Howell
It’s not like the Huls family doesn’t have a lot to brag about already with respect to their dairy operation, but now they’ve got even more to brag about, since one old tree on the place is now a National Champion.
Yep. The huge shade tree located between the old house and the barn at the Huls Dairy northeast of Corvallis, a Plains Cottonwood (Populus deltoides), is currently the largest one of its kind in the National Register of Big Trees. The Montana Register of Big Trees is currently in the hands of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service, the Rocky Mountain Research Station, the American Tree Farm System, and the American Forests organization.
Dan Rogers, DNRC Stewardship Supervisor for the program, and Lori Palm, agency photographer, recently presented a framed photograph of the tree to the Huls family in celebration of the tree’s status. That photograph also graces the front cover of the 2014 National Register
of Big Trees Calendar.
Rogers called the Montana Big Trees Program a “work in progress.”
“As living entities, trees are always changing,” said Rogers. “A tree may earn a spot in the registry with strong growth or by being the first of its species submitted. A tree on the registry may fall out of the list due to limb loss, death, or discovery of a new champion.” Thus the publication of the registry represents a snapshot in time.
One tree, for instance, that fell out of the registry upon death was the previous reigning Montana champion, located on the old Quast Homestead owned by Wallace Weber. This old tree had a point value in the rating system of a whopping 536 points and held the state urban championship from 1999 until it was cut down in 2010.
There is a formula for rating the trees that yields a point value based on a combination of the circumference of the tree at waist height (4 1/2 feet), the height of the tree, and the average crown spread.
Back in 1999 when the Quast Homestead tree measured 536 on the registry, the Huls Dairy tree was measured at 506 points. Ten years later, in 2009, the Huls Dairy tree was re-measured and scored 530 points. It had gained eight feet in height and 17 inches in circumference. It was close enough to the last measurement of the Champ to earn co-champion status in 2009 and became the outright Montana urban champ when the Quast Homestead tree was cut down the following year. It was declared the National Champ Plains Cottonwood in 2012, when the previous reigning national champion in Colorado died.
The first Plains Cottonwood to be placed on the registry was a 308 point tree located in Wibaux County. It was measured in February of 1980. A trio of trees in Richland County near Sidney would have qualified as co-champions under the 15 point range rule used today.
The Wibaux tree was officially displaced by a 402 point tree on land owned by Mel Bakken, also in the Sydney area. This tree measured 25 feet in circumference and 80 feet tall when measured in July 1981. Mr. Bakken remembered the tree as 4 to 5 feet tall in 1911, a few years before he purchased the land.
Then in 1987 the Championship came to the Bitterroot Valley when a 433 point tree was measured on the grounds of the Daly Mansion. The Daly tree, almost as large in circumference as the Bakken tree, measured 40 feet taller, at 120 feet.
The two trees discovered in the Corvallis area in 1999 kept the state championship in the valley and the Huls Dairy tree now rank
s as National Urban Champion Plains Cottonwood.
Montana has seven national champion trees on the registry including a Crack Willow in Ravalli County and seven native tree champions as well.
Far from bragging about his tree, actually, Dan Huls was humble in his remarks and pleased at the turn of events.
“We had no idea,” he said. “We feel very fortunate to have it on our property. But it’s nothing we did. We just acquired it. Mark Lewing
is the man to thank in all this. He knows his trees and he’s always on the lookout for exceptional ones.” He said the work Lewing was doing in bringing recognition of these trees was itself exceptional.
Indeed, it helps to know what you are looking for and how to make the measurements when you go scouting for a new champ. Mark Lewing, who recommended the Huls Dairy tree for the registry, is making a name for himself in the Big Tree Registry. His name is attached to a number of noteworthy trees in the native tree registry for the state, including another national champion, a white spruce, located in Lincoln
County. He has also found the largest point score for a Blue Elder, American Elm, Boxelder, Water Birch, a Black Cottonwood, and Bebb, Sandbar and Scouler Willows, all in Ravalli County. He found the largest scoring Rocky Mountain Juniper in Missoula County and biggest Alpine Larch in Lincoln County. Lewing, a retired state forester who lives near Stevensville, loves big trees and delights in bringing them their due recognition in the registry.