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Fate of Oregon's ailing giant is up in the air

Heavy winds have torn open an old wound in the 700-year-old tree. The tough question: Let it fall, or cut it down?

January 08, 2007|Lynn Marshall | Times Staff Writer

SEATTLE — The 200-foot-tall Sitka spruce tree has stood for 700 years, but after a fierce windstorm swept through the Pacific Northwest last month, the famed Klootchy Creek Giant may not stand much longer.

The storm left the tree, designated one of the two largest Sitka spruces in the nation, with a spiral hole in its trunk a foot and a half deep and more than 15 feet long.

It won't take another storm to bring down the tree, which has a trunk circumference of 52 feet. Even warming temperatures as the wood dries out could be enough to change the tree's dynamics, causing it to fall or split along the fault line.

In windstorms, trees must be able to release energy to withstand the external force of the weather. Most trees do this by swaying, shuddering and bending, according to state urban forester Paul Ries.

But the Klootchy Creek Giant is too massive to shrug off strong winds.

Ries believes that the storm exacerbated a weakness in the tree dating back many years.

"Approximately 50 years ago the tree was hit by lightning, which left a spiral scar running down the tree," Ries says. "Trees don't heal wounds like that. They seal them. And we know now that in this case the sealing didn't work."

No one saw what happened to the tree during the windstorm, but Ries believes it was similar to the pressure released along a fault line during an earthquake. In this case, though, the fault line opened up, and chunks of wood, both rotted and living, were expelled from the tree.

"The material from inside the tree was 4 inches deep on the deck," Ries says. A wooden deck was built around the tree years ago to allow visitors to approach the giant while protecting its root system.

Steve Meshke, Clatsop County parks director, says he has been inundated with e-mail, calls and visitors since news of the tree's failing health broke.

The tree, in Klootchy Creek Park near Seaside, Ore., about 75 miles west of Portland, draws an estimated 100,000 visitors every year.

It shares the designation of the nation's largest Sitka spruce with a shorter but wider tree in Washington.

"People have suggested filling it with epoxy, propping up the tree, all kinds of things. Most people would like to see it saved in some way, or if that can't be done, left alone -- so that nature takes care of it," says Meshke.

He has also heard from loggers, wood salvage companies and members of the public who want to be sure the tree's wood isn't left to rot, if it falls.

"We have suggestions that we make it into a bench for the county courthouse, a totem pole, plaques for the site, all kinds of things. And one guy e-mailed, saying he wants to sell the wood on EBay," says Meshke.

For now, Clatsop County has closed off the tree's viewing deck and put up signs to warn the public of the danger. The county park system is working with Ries and an outside consulting arborist to try to decide on the tree's fate.

The county faces three options: cutting the massive tree down; cutting it down above the fault line, which would leave an 80-foot-tall dead stump; or letting the tree fall on its own, putting up barriers in the park and keeping the public a safe distance back, providing views of the tree, while it lasts.

Ries says the tree is old and has come to the end of its lifespan. "Its health problems are irreversible," he says. "It's a question now of balancing the public's interest and the public's safety."

Meshke says the county expects to make a decision about the tree soon.

"We're leaning towards leaving it," he says. "It's a management problem -- we want to maintain what we've got, as long as we can, and then let nature take its course, while keeping the public safe."

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