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Archive for Wednesday, April 28, 1999

CHAMPION TREE FACES DEVELOPMENT FOE

April 28, 1999

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A state champion tree in Lawrence may have to make way for development.

The baldcypress that now towers over a vacant lot in Lawrence was likely a horticulturist's experiment to see whether the Mississippi Delta tree could survive in the Kaw Valley.

Surprisingly, the tree did, enduring perhaps a century of summer droughts and winter freezes and dodging development at 2200 Haskell as the city grew around it.

In 1978 it was recognized as a champion, the largest of its species in Kansas.

But its existence on that state list, as well as on its vacant lot, may be tentative.

The property is being advertised for commercial development.

"Slim and none," property owner Doug Compton termed its chances of survival.

It's nothing personal.

"If a property can be developed around the natural terrain and landscape, we don't touch it," Compton said.

But the central position of the baldcypress will likely mean the loss of another state champion tree for Douglas County.

Douglas County now can boast six state champions. A seventh, a giant Scotch pine near Baldwin, died last summer and was cut down just last week.

For now, only two counties, Johnson with 16 and Leavenworth with 31, have more trees listed as champions. But if the baldcypress is cut down, Douglas will trail Kingman County, the location of the state's second-largest baldcypress.

The champion list is maintained by Kansas State Research & Extension Forestry, which scores the trees on a point system based on circumference, height and crown spread.

"People are just interested in big trees," said Jim Strine, district forester for the Kansas Forest Service. "Also it's a good way to promote tree planting, promote the care of trees."

The reaction of Lawrence veterinarian Dr. Herschel Lewis is more ethereal.

"I enjoy things that are around me. I found a long time ago that if you wait for the big thing to enjoy it never comes," Lewis said. "It's nice to know that particular tree " has some significance somewhere."

Lewis is not an arborist, but on a recent trip to Topeka he did note the absence of a one-time state champion Scotch pine that had presided over Stull Cemetery but died last summer.

"I just noted it," he said. "I probably will every time I drive by there."

Environmentalists value more the untouched stands of cottonwoods or other native trees than they do the imported trees planted by early residents.

"Things that are planted " are probably less important to us than old trees in native forests," said Kelly Kindscher, an assistant scientist with the Kansas Biological Survey. "But for historical reasons, old trees do become important to people."

The tree's history can only be guessed at.

Based on an estimate of the tree's age by Bill Loucks, a conservation forester with the Kansas Forest Service, the tree was planted around the turn of the century when horticulturist Benjamin Franklin Smith owned the property.

Smith helped transform the landscape of a county that as recently as 1883 was 94 percent open prairie, said Steven Jansen, director of the Watkins Community Museum of History.

And in so doing, he helped debunk the myth that this was the great American desert.

"There are so many trees that today we tend to underestimate how hard they worked to prove tree growing could be done in this area," Jansen said. "Those were big-time deals to see those groves of trees come up. It was a sign they were successfully transforming their environment.

"People think of buildings and structures and roads, but the greatest impact of man is in the trees."

-- Kendrick Blackwood's phone message number is 832-7221. His e-mail address is kblackwood@ljworld.com.

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