Why is State Parks razing the historic willows of Soldier Hollow?

Soldier Hollow, Utah, is best known as an Olympic site for cross-country skiing, but its most beloved natural feature is a grove of majestic black willows whose branches soar overhead, enclosing a space of reverential peace, a place that Jenifer Tringham describes as a “fairy corner”.

The proximity of these trees was the reason Utah State Parks chose this location for a new campground, currently under construction as part of a Utah State Park upgrade program. Wasatch Mountain.

So Tringham, a store owner from Heber City, is the height of irony that the park plans to remove 10 of the trees, an unfortunate step necessary to keep the new campground safe.

“It’s a paradise for birds. There are so many different birds, owls, baby owls and so on, and nature thrives here. It’s beautiful,” Tringham said Wednesday. “It’s one of those unkept secrets. We feel like we are the first to come and explore it. But in fact, so many locals cherish this area. They use it for family gatherings. They had services here for loved ones who passed away. It is a very sacred area.

The tree-removal plan sounds like a line straight out of Joni Mitchell’s classic song “Big Yellow Taxi,” about paving heaven in a parking lot and not knowing what you’ve got until that he is gone. Likewise, Tringham and others worry that pressure from state parks to expand recreational facilities in the parks could jeopardize some of the natural features that draw people to the parks in the first place.

Last month Tringham sounded the alarm over the plight of the trees just as machinery was about to start removing them, sparking public outcry that prompted the Department of Natural Resources to suspend construction and reassess the plan.

“Let’s bring in additional arborists, safety engineers, construction groups,” State Parks spokesman Devan Chavez said. “Are there any other options here?” Aren’t there any? What is the security concern? How far away should things be from specific things? »

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jenifer Tringham, right, and Ed Hendershot walk through the grounds of a grove of black willows, right, a place Tringham describes as “fairy corner.”

The agency will write a report to guide how to proceed, but noted that many willows, while impressive, are old and susceptible to losing large branches as they weaken. Chavez stressed that State Parks takes community concerns seriously and intends to be transparent.

“When they go camping, they want to be surrounded by trees, they want to be surrounded by beauty. Campground or no campground, some of the trees started to crumble during the wind storms,” Chavez said. “Regardless of any design changes coming from this campground, the most important thing is to make sure we take care of these trees. We don’t want them falling on people, hikers, pavement.

Celeste Johnson, mayor of nearby Midway, believes State Parks is handling the situation appropriately, praising the agency for listening to concerned citizens while prioritizing safety.

“They’ve put the project on hold while they review this,” Johnson said. “Are there things we could do to make trees safer and save trees? I love that in the garden at Midway we have really old trees and it’s kind of cool in Utah. We don’t have many, especially a deciduous tree.

She was at the site Wednesday with an arborist hired by State Parks to examine the trees. Johnson suspects the days of some of the tallest trees are numbered, given their advanced age.

“They appreciate that these are old historic trees, trees that have lived much longer than their usual lifespan,” she said. “When that happens with an old tree, the tree doesn’t get stronger and better. It usually gets weaker.

Wasatch Mountain is Utah’s largest state park at over 21,000 acres and welcomed over half a million visitors last year.

A historic site where the United States Army camped in the 1850s and Native Americans before that, Soldier Hollow was added to the park after the 2002 Winter Olympics, along with its facilities which include The Chalet, located near the willows near from the shore of Deer Creek Reservoir. Popular campgrounds are located across the park on Pine Canyon Road, but there is nowhere to camp in the lower parts of the park.

“Attendance is skyrocketing everywhere. It’s a big park. Instead of just trying to put more sites right next to existing campgrounds, why not spread them out? Chavez said. “Why not give people access to other beautiful areas of the park?”

The plan is to install 10 campsites near the Chalet and the existing trailhead for the trail that runs along the north shore of the reservoir. Chavez said State Parks plans to plant 37 trees to replace the 10 that would be lost.

But it would take decades to fill the void left by the removal of the massive trees, depriving birds and other wildlife of essential habitat and humans of a peaceful place to connect with nature, according to photographer Stephanie Neal. .

“It makes no sense to me. It’s a sacred place,” Neal said. “People appreciate its beauty and wilderness and it seems they want to make it a theme park. I don’t understand why they would remove the trees and design the campground around them. We don’t need another RV park there.

Neal, a 16-year resident of Midway, is a portrait photographer who shoots in natural settings and is often drawn to Soldier Hollow’s willow grove as his backdrop.

Another photographer, Willie Holdman of Park City, said he understands the public safety concerns, but he’s worried State Parks is prioritizing construction over preservation, not just at Wasatch Mountain, but elsewhere. in the system of 45 state parks.

“The storms are coming; the winds are blowing. They don’t want trees falling on people,” Holdman said. “If it’s dangerous, locate it somewhere else. When I think of parks, I think of trees.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jenifer Tringham stands next to the tallest tree in the Black Willow Grove.

Tringham’s favorite willow is the one that was struck by lightning years ago and now has a feature that looks like a womb. This one she calls The Woman Tree. It is now planned to be removed, marked with orange paint. The same goes for the largest inhabitant of the grove, on which the paint was applied in a smiling face.

Holdman and Tringham recently wrapped a 25-foot tape measure around the trunk of this tree in a bid to see how it compares to the tallest known black willows. The conservation group American Forests maintains the National Registry of Champion Trees, listing the greatest examples of 561 species.

On Soldier Hollow willow, Holdman’s strip was at least a foot too short to reach the trunk, putting its diameter on par with the largest known black willow in the country, which grows in Minnesota. According to the registry, the diameter of this tree is 26 feet 3 inches when measured 4.5 feet above the ground.

Fans of the grove are baffled that a tree of such stature could be sacrificed to bring more vehicles into the park. In a time of meteoric growth, they say, now is the time to save natural treasures like the willows of Soldier Hollow, which will become increasingly valuable as Utah’s landscapes are bulldozed into housing estates, highways and, of course, parking lots.

“There has to be respect, balance and also responsibility. And I don’t see developers in any part of Utah really doing that,” Tringham said. “And with everything going on in the world, people need it. We need to connect and we need to have peace. We need to calm down. That’s what nature does.

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