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.