Utah State professor hopes to save massive Ogden walnut from getting whacked

Tuesday , June 12, 2018 - 5:15 AM6 comments

In downtown Ogden, near some new apartments and old residental lots razed long ago, a massive tree grows. 

The tree’s branches provide leafy cover for a variety of songbirds and shelter for a small adjoining dog park — a little nature reprieve in the middle of the city. 

Mike Kuhns first spotted it while enjoying a beer at Slackwater Pizzeria & Pub. He’s the head of Utah State University’s Department of Wildland Resources and has a background in forestry. He looks at a lot of trees, but this one stood out. 

“You get an eye for what a big tree is,” he said. “Even though this was a couple of blocks away, I just thought, ‘Wow, that’s big.’”

He took a closer look, noting the chocolate-brown shells heaped below. He realized it’s an English walnut, standing 85 feet tall, with a trunk 18 feet and 7 inches in circumference and a maximum canopy spread of 100 feet.

It’s probably the biggest tree of its kind in the state.

“Turns out, it’s quite a bit bigger than the current state champion,” Kuhns said.

The current record for a big English walnut, in Salt Lake City, is just 69 feet tall and 14 feet around the trunk.

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While Kuhns stood in the English walnut’s shade and marveled at its size, he also observed the new townhomes and signs promising more. The tree grows at the heart of the Ogden River Redevelopment Area.

That means it might be on the chopping block.

“I assume there’s further development slated,” Kuhns said. “Even when people want to keep a tree, especially people who aren’t tree experts, they can kill a tree if they trench around it, putting in utilities, putting in a foundation. At the end, they grade the site, put sod down, and here’s this magnificent big tree that will still die from what they’ve done.”

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Turns out, the tree grows on a lot currently owned by the Ogden City Redevelopment Agency. The city is aware of how rare the English walnut is, but they can’t make any promises about its future. 

“We’re just waiting for development to come and we don’t know whether it will be saved or not,” said Jannette Borklund with Ogden City Planning. “We’re hoping it will be, but if it ends up in the middle of a parking lot or somewhere that’s not convenient, it may have to come down.”

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It’s tough to trace the tree’s history. It once grew in someone’s backyard decades ago, at their home on Childs Avenue. Maybe it was planted for shade, maybe for the nuts or maybe as a way to beautify the property. That entire neighborhood was torn down around 2010 as part of the Ogden River redevelopment project. The homes are gone, even the avenue was abandoned to make way for an apartment building, but the stately old walnut remains for now.

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“There were certain trees that I said, ‘Hey, if at all possible, we’d like to save these trees.’ Some were saved and some weren’t,” said Monte Stewart, who’s currently the city’s Parks and Cemetery manager but previously served as Ogden’s urban forester for 11 years.

“We don’t know who planted it or how old it is,” Stewart said. “It would have to be cored to find that out.”

Old aerial photographs show the tree has been there since at least 1971. Old maps and street directories show the tree’s former house was built sometime after 1906 but before 1950. 

“Usually, it’s a pretty good bet that if there are older buildings (near) an older tree, they went in about the same time,” Kuhns said.

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He figures the tree is at least 60 years old. It could have been growing for nearly a century. But it’s not the age that’s important — it’s the size. 

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Big trees like the English walnut matter, especially in cities. They cool the environment and they store carbon, offsetting some of the effects of climate change. They remove particulate pollution from the air. They help control stormwater runoff. The bigger the tree, the bigger the benefits.

One study by the U.S. Forest Service, for example, found healthy trees more than 30 inches in diameter remove 70 times more air pollution than smaller trees.  

Utah, like a lot of states, maintains a database of its biggest urban trees, aided by hobby tree scouts like Kuhns. Each tree gets points for its height, the circumference of its trunk and its average canopy spread. 

Ogden only has one champion in the Utah Big Tree Directory — an umbrella catalpa at the Ogden-Weber Applied Technology College. It also appears to be the only documented big tree in Weber County.

The rest of the record holders are largely clustered in Salt Lake City, Logan and Utah County. Kuhns has submitted Ogden’s massive English walnut to the Big Tree Directory. It now awaits review from the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands.

Kuhns said he hopes it will bring the tree some much-needed attention.

“It might put some momentum behind keeping it,” he said. 

Contact Reporter Leia Larsen at 801-625-4289 or llarsen@standard.net. Follow her on Facebook.com/LeiaInTheField or on Twitter @LeiaLarsen


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