Scharff’s Blue Spruce

Written by Janelle Wicks/Photos by Isabelle Fleuraud, Jon Brown, and John Scharff

On the morning of October 8th, just one week after beginning their work on a full tree inventory and risk assessment, Jon Brown and Karen Tillou, discovered that the infamous John Scharff Blue Spruce at Refuge Headquarters was experiencing a trauma.

A crack had formed between codominant stems of the main trunk. Both stems were leaning outward and presenting imminent failure of at least one. Despite the unfortunate circumstances for this particular tree, it was the perfect opportunity for us to come together as a coalition and consider the options under the outline of our predetermined factors to consider:

  1. Risk to life and property – Moderately used public space where birders linger. Positioned directly adjacent to a historic Civilian Conservation Corps building which currently functions at the Refuge’s Administrative Offices.
  2. Ecological Value – This tree has a long record of being a nesting location for a variety of species, most notably great-horned owls. The dense branching provides great cover for many migratory songbird species.
  3. Historical Value – This blue spruce was planted in 1966 by then Refuge Manager John Scharff. His intentions were to grow it as an outdoor Christmas tree that could be strung with lights every year. It is a well-known and appreciated tree to many long-time visitors.

The challenge? Minimize the risk to life and property while maintaining as much of the tree’s integrity as possible to hold on to the ecological and historical value. With everyone present and able to discuss these factors and develop the appropriate response plan it became obvious that if a tree was going to fail – this was perfect tree to do so and at the perfect time!

The first thing that needed to happen was to stabilize the tree’s failing stems so that they would not fall before someone could be contracted to treat the tree. Jon installed a 5/8″ rope in the tree canopy to provide some temporary support and reduce the pressure on the damaged stems. In November, Jon will return with another arborist to remove the failing stem and provide care for the remaining stems. The hope is for the tree to remain largely intact with a new opening in the crown. This opening may in and of itself create additional habitat benefits for nesting birds such as our beloved great-horned owls.

Sodhouse Ranch. Historic building in the distance framed by very large old cottonwood trees. Old split raid fence in the foreground.

Tree Management Planning

Written by Janelle Wicks/Photo by Alan Nyiri

When you are duck banding through the night with 20 other people you hardly know but have a lot in common with, sleep-deprived conversation tend go here, there, and everywhere in a delirious attempt to stay awake until the sun comes up. These conversations often don’t go anywhere, lost to the sunrise and sleepy morning. In August 2019, Portland Audubon’s Teresa Wicks and volunteers Jon Brown and Karen Tillou did not know that their midnight musings would become the actuality that they are today.

Teresa had just completed a season of living at and working out of P Ranch to conduct the Refuge’s breeding bird surveys. Jon and Karen are long time Malheur admirers and visitors turned volunteers for both Portland Audubon and Friends of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. They are also arborists. The conversation went from queries about the P Ranch Orchard to concerns about the remaining lifespan of the cottonwood stands which support the heron rookery at Sodhouse Ranch. What about stand replacements at Headquarters? How are the trees managed on the Refuge? Is there a way to get involved and help?

It was obvious to everyone that this was more than casual banter but had true substance and consequence. In January 2020, these midnight musings took the form of a Tree Management Meeting between Refuge Staff, Friends of Malheur NWR Leadership and Project Committee, Portland Audubon, and of course Jon and Karen.

We all learned the Refuge’s Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP) mandates a Tree Management Plan, which was yet to be developed. The conversation started there. What would the plan look like? What trees/areas would be addressed? What factors would be considered when determining an action on any individual tree or stand? In the span of 4 hours we determined the areas of interest (from north to south):

  • Headquarters
  • Sodhouse Ranch
  • Buena Vista
  • Witzel Homestead
  • Benson Pond
  • P Ranch & Orchard
  • Barnes Springs

These areas needed to be inventoried and then assessed for risk to life and property in addition to ecological and historical values. The inventory should include age classes, stem diameters, crown height, etc. This inventory and risk assessment information should be documented in comprehensive maps with an accompanying report. All of this and more must be done before we can develop the Tree Management Plan from which we can begin to develop management actions.

We were all in agreement and with the Refuge’s full support, Jon and Karen went home to develop a proposal for conducting this inventory and assessment. Then… COVID. Jon and I spoke several times throughout the spring and were concerned that this project would have to be put off until 2021, thus further delaying the ability to develop a Tree Management Plan. Fortunately, Jon and Karen were able to quarantine and, under strict health and safety protocols, come to Malheur for the month of October to begin the work.

While they were here, I got to hear things from them like, ‘I’ve never spent 8 hrs at Benson Pond before. Today I met EVERY tree!’ or ‘There is something about visiting these trees at each location that makes me feel more intimately connected to the Refuge than I ever have.’ They spent the entire month conducting the inventory, gathering historical and biological information, and of course dealing with the unexpected.

(See Scharff’s Blue Spruce for that story)

There is much work to be done, across the Refuge, but we are off to a great start with some truly great people. In the weeks and months to come you can look forward to more articles, videos, and social media updates about John Scharff’s blue spruce, the Tree Management Plan, and eventually volunteer work parties to carry out some priority management actions in support of maintaining healthy tree stands at Malheur NWR.