Champion tree project takes root at the Special K Ranch
Special K Ranch has added a new project to the extensive growing operation at the ranch.
The ranch is now growing champion trees that are indigenous to the Yellowstone Valley. The ranch became involved with the project several years ago when champion tree hunter Marty Flanagan suggested the ranch consider growing clones from champion trees.
Levi McKim, a vocational adviser at Special K, said the ranch currently has about 750 cloned trees that are being grown. The champion trees grown at the ranch during the first year were cloned from a Narrowleaf Cottonwood in Joliet. The Joliet tree was for a time a National Champion Tree until Flanagan identified another, larger tree near Big Timber. The Big Timber tree was initially thought to be a Plains Cottonwood, but turned out to also be a Narrowleaf Cottonwood.
Special K Ranch currently has several species of trees growing, including Shining Willow, Peachleaf Willow, Black Cottonwood, Golden Willow, Yellow Willow, Narrowleaf Cottonwood, and Plains Cottonwood.
Some of the champion trees grown at the ranch have already been replanted locally. McKim said 100 of the trees cloned from the Joliet tree were planted in Coulson Park in Billings last year. The trees are also available for purchase by anyone who is interested. Trees will be available at the upcoming annual fundraising dinner on April 21.
Trees sold by the ranch are all listed on a tree registry that is part of the Champion Tree Project. National Champion Tree records are kept by American Forests, an organization founded in 1875 to protect the nation’s forests. Montana has also kept records of its biggest trees since 1973. The state records are currently maintained by the Department of Natural Resources in cooperation with the Department of Agriculture, Flanagan said.
Flanagan said he feels blessed to be a part of producing the first registered champion trees from the Yellowstone Valley.
One goal that the ranch has as part of this project is to eventually have a living library of champion trees on the ranch. McKim said two or three representations of each tree will be planted on the ranch.
McKim said the tree program gives residents a sense of pride since they are part of growing champion trees.
McKim said the idea behind cloning champion trees is rooted in the fact that only about three percent of old growth forests remain untouched nationally. The plan is to not just preserve, but to restore the genetics of old trees, McKim said.
Flanagan said we are losing the old trees real fast. Cloning these trees is an effort to preserve some of the best genetics that can be found in what is left.
Flanagan started working with trees in Stillwater County about 35 years ago. About 15 years ago he heard about the champion tree project when a father and son team in Michigan successfully cloned an elm tree.
“It’s a great project,” Flanagan said.
Trees pretty much clone themselves from generation to generation, Flanagan said.
The Yellowstone River is the longest free-flowing river in the country and is still able to experience the 100-year floods that are essential for Cottonwood trees to clone themselves.
Flanagan said cloning champion trees is not going against the natural process because some trees clone themselves.
Fires and droughts take a heavy toll on trees. The usual mild climate in this area, coupled with frequent winds, dries things out, Flanagan said. He has a tree in Big Timber that has 216 rings and the effects of the last drought can be seen in the rings. The last 40 years on that tree showed the longest stretch with that little moisture in more than 200 years, Flanagan said.
In 2001 the Montana registry had no champion trees east of the Continental Divide.
Flanagan decided to start seeking out big trees in this area. Within a few years he had added six or seven trees to the registry without breaking any records by adding new species of trees that were not previously in the registry.
The Yellowstone Valley area is unique because of the species of trees that are found here, Flanagan said. We have four species of Cottonwood trees that come together in this area. The Narrowleaf Cottonwood is the least wide-spread, he said. This tree is not found much west of the Divide or much to the east, though some are found to the north and south.
Flanagan said he wanted to do this project in a big way. He was familiar with the spirit of Special K Ranch and saw new greenhouses keep popping up at the ranch. Flanagan first mentioned the idea of having Special K grow cloned champion trees to Mike Oberg, executive director at Special K, about eight or nine years ago. It took about five years to get the project going, Flanagan said.
Without the Special K Ranch it would not even be able to happen in the state, Flanagan said.
The point of the project is creating a gene pool of champion trees, Flanagan said. He also described the project as an effort to bring our trees home.
A tree from Hamilton may live if brought to this area, he said, but would probably not flourish.
Humidity, wind, and weather all impact how well certain plants will grow.
A tree seed does not carry 100 percent of the genetics of the tree it comes from, but the tree does. Preserving the genetics of the tree therefore requires cloning the tree.
Smaller plants like Willows can be cloned by taking cuttings from the branches of a tree.
Willows can also be cloned from the roots during winter. Cottonwood trees can be cloned by rooting the stems of last year’s growth similar to rooting garden plants. Other cloning processes are bench grafts, bud grafts, and layering.
“This project is to bring longevity back into our trees,” Flanagan said.
In order to bring longevity back to trees it has to start with a good gene pool, he said.
Flanagan said when you find a big tree at some time during the year you will find every type of animal near the tree.
Since these champion trees are usually 800 - 1,500 years old it can take 600 - 800 years to regenerate a healthy forest with big trees. It is our kids and grandkids that will see the reward and greatness of our work, Flanagan said.
“Somehow that just kind of tickles me,” Flanagan said.