BIG HORN — In 1880, William Jackson arrived in Big Horn as one of the area’s first settlers. More than likely, he brought along a cutting from a tree as part of his possessions. The next year, he built a small cabin on a creek, later named Jackson Creek in his honor, and planted the tree nearby.
That tree still stands today and was recently named a Champion Tree of Wyoming.
The Champion Tree Program is a national program, administered locally in Wyoming by the Wyoming State Forestry Division. The program seeks to identify and recognize the largest specimens of both native and introduced tree species in the state and nation.
“It is a tremendously fun project,” said Marty Flanagan, who works with the program from Big Timber, Montana. “There have been some great stories over the years.”
Flanagan has been associated with the program in Montana for over a decade. Last April, after an article ran in the Billings Gazette about the tree program, Flanagan received a call from Big Horn resident Leigh Helvey. Helvey said she had a tree on her property that Flanagan really should see.
Flanagan recently visited Helvey and inspected the tree. He took measurements of it and heard Helvey’s story of its history. Additionally, staff from Wyoming State Forestry came to take measurements and on Monday, Flanagan received word that the tree was officially recognized as the largest eastern cottonwood in the state.
“This tree now is your state champion eastern cottonwood,” he said.
Mark Ellison, Wyoming Champion Tree coordinator, said that Helvey’s husband Charles actually contacted state forestry several years ago, suggesting that the tree on his property might be one of the largest and oldest cottonwoods. However, it was assumed the cottonwood was of the ‘plains’ variety, which is the official state tree, and there are other larger specimens of that variety.
“Looking back, she nominated this tree, actually her husband did, Charles, quite a few years ago, back in 2001,” he said. “I think this tree was probably thought to be a plains cottonwood, and we have a bigger plains cottonwoods, so it didn’t become a state champion due to the fact they didn’t identify it properly initially.”
Ellison said distinguishing between the many varieties of cottonwood can be tedious, detail-oriented work, based mainly on leaf variations. However, he said Flanagan did the identification work and identified the tree as an eastern cottonwood, which put it in a new category for Champion Tree.
While plains, narrowleaf and black cottonwoods are native to some parts of Wyoming, according to Ellison, the eastern cottonwood is not.
“More than likely it was brought from somewhere,” Ellison said about Helvey’s tree. “So wherever those folks came from that settled the property, it likely came from that area.”
To determine championship status, Flanagan said three measurements are taken of the tree, the circumference or girth, measured at 4.5-feet from the ground, the height of the tree, and the size or width of the crown. The three scores are combined to create one composite score. Both Flanagan and state forestry scored the tree and Ellison combined the two sets of measurements to create the official score.
Additionally, Flanagan took several cuttings, which will be used to clone the tree. He said the cuttings were sent to the Natural Resource Conservation Service’s Plant Materials Center in Bridger, Mont.
Once the cuttings are rooted, they will be transferred to the Special K Ranch, located near Columbus, Mont. to continue growing. The ranch, which serves adults with developmental disabilities, operates a large nursery and more than two-dozen greenhouses and will raise the trees until they are large enough to be planted in a park or other safe location.
“All we’re doing is rooting the cuttings of last year’s growth on these trees,” Flanagan explained. “We are saving the genetics of these old trees and getting them put in safe places like parks and repositories where they should be safe for a long time. If we ever have to tap into some of these old genetics to help new trees coming along, we’ll have these banks of trees to draw on. It is important.”
In addition to its large size, Helvey’s tree is particularly hardy and long-lived as well. A plant fact sheet from the U.S. Department of Agriculture notes that eastern cottonwoods are usually a short-lived tree, often surviving only to 80 years or so.
Ellison said he thinks cottonwoods in our area may live longer, around 100 years, but at 133 years old, Helvey’s tree is still an especially long-lived specimen. Both he and Helvey believe the tree’s health and longevity is tied to its ideal location…on an irrigation ditch.
“I think the reason it has lived so long is because it is so wet here,” Helvey said. “It is very wet where this house is. There are two irrigation ditches that go by it. It is quite boggy, even in mid summer. We have taken very good care of it and trimmed it several times, which is not an easy job.”
Two other state champion trees are located in Sheridan County, a green ash and a Rocky Mountain maple. More information about champion trees can be found on the Wyoming State Forestry website.