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Saving something of value.

SAVING SOMETHING OF VALUE

For every specimen listed in this 50th Anniversary Edition of the National Register of Big Trees, there are many other nominees that don't make the grade and thus recede into obscurity. But for one distinctive tree, its moment of public notoriety may well have meant its very survival. Here's how it happened:

The American chestnut (Castanea dentata), rendered virtually extinct in the U.S. by a killer fungus that may have originated in the Orient, once represented half of the total tree population in the East. The story of its decimation reveals the worst of what can go wrong in the American forest.

But not long ago in Lynden, Washington (population 5,000), a dairy community in the state's far northwest corner, a resident from nearby Bellingham spotted what he thought might be an American chestnut. Standing 40 feet tall and with a 10 1/2-foot circumference, it was capable of quickening the pulse of any lover of chestnuts - an extraordinary survivor in an unlikely place.

Robert Foster, the discoverer, sent a leaf-and-twig sample to the American Chestnut Foundation in Minneapolis, and back came surprising news: "At 40 inches in trunk diameter, that tree is one of the largest surviving American chestnuts left in the entire world," reported Donald C. Willeke, the Foundation's secretary (and an AFA director).

The tree appeared perfectly healthy, but its future was not. The owner, Lynden School District 504, was planning to cut it down to make room for a big new school on the 11-acre parcel on which it grew.

Foster's brother and sister-in-law, Lynden residents Larry Foster and Rebecca Wiswell, were initially unimpressed. After all, they had four three-year-old American chestnut seedlings growing in their yard.

But then they started thinking: "This world is the only place we have, and people are destroying it without finding what's here..."

The school board communicated its position succinctly: "The tree must go." The young couple, sensing the need for reinforcements, took to phone and pen. He put a notice in the Fairhaven College bulletin - and got his dander up in the process. She collared friends, relatives, and anyone else who'd listen.

On the night of the next school-board meeting, 20 supporters showed up, including representatives of every garden club in the county, plus the American Chestnut Foundation. Ane Soriano, representing the Everson Garden Club, explained the rarity, size, and healthy condition of the threatened tree.

The school board stood firm but held out a rather costly carrot: if the group could pony up $40,000 for a sewage pump station, maybe the new school could be moved away from the chestnut. The little coalition asked for three weeks; the Board gave them three days. So, with a reporter from the Lynden Tribune in tow, they trooped over to the City Council that same evening - only to be told that the Council couldn't stop the school board from removing the tree.

For the next few days, Larry, Rebecca, and Ane attacked the problem with single-mindedness. Larry closed down his gardening business and skipped classes. He called state departments of Ecology and Natural Resources, the Board of Education, the Governor's office, Audubon Society, local politicians, and radio, TV, and newspapers. Others also got on the phone.

On the deadline day, it was obvious that all the calling had accomplished its goal. The board said it would look into changing its plans if the coalition would investigate moving the tree. While the group was getting the sad news that it would cost $5,000 to move the tree (with only a zero to 30 percent chance of its surviving), petitions went out, and within just six days, 1,000 locals had signed in support of saving the chestnut. Not bad for a town of 5,000.

Shortly thereafter, Seattle's KOMO-TV, Bellingham's KVOS-TV, and the Lynden Tribune arrived around the tree - along with some 50 supporters - for a media workover. And the Lynden chestnut suddenly became a visible symbol of community resolve to preserve something of newly perceived value in the little town.

On the same day the KOMO-TV feature aired in Seattle, the Lynden School Board announced that it would build the new school elsewhere on the property, and leave ample room for the tree.

Today the American chestnut in Lynden is decidedly a part of life in that little town. Who knows how many school children will gather around it on warm spring days to study the American chestnut's fresh green outlines against the coastal sky, and perhaps to plant other chestnuts?

Meanwhile, Larry Foster and wife Rebecca nominated the tree for AFA's National Register of Big Trees. It fell somewhat short - an even larger American chestnut was submitted by Washington State's big-tree coordinator, Robert Van Pelt. But no matter ...the Lynden chestnut's place in history is secure.
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Copyright 1990, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:National Register of Big Trees; American chestnut
Author:McLean, Herbert E.
Publication:American Forests
Date:Jan 1, 1990
Words:804
Previous Article:Elm hunt.
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