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Plant Focus

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An oak found only on a volcano in Costa Rica

Farewell to a Champ

One of the highlights of the Pre-Conference New Mexico Tour was to be the National Champion Quercus grisea (gray oak), measured by Ryan Russell and Michael Meléndrez during the 2017 IOS Tour of New Mexico. Sadly, nature had other plans: the oak succumbed to the Foster Fire, a wildfire that started on May 29, and burnt large swathes of Coronado National Forest in the Peloncillo Mountains.

Champion Gray Oak with Anna
The National Champion Gray Oak south of Animas, New Mexico, in all its glory in March 2018

On the 2017 Tour, Michael Meléndrez was leading the group to a champion Q. grisea in Hidalgo County, south of the town of Animas, New Mexico. It had first been measured by Michael and Guy Sternberg in 1996 and then again during the legendary 2001 Tour1 of the U.S. Southwest, when it was determined to be the National Champion.

Gray oak National Champ with Guy Sternberg
The erstwhile National Champion Quercus grisea with Guy Sternberg, 1996

In 2017, after some exploration, they found its remains: a charred stump, presumably a result of a lighting strike or a forest fire.

Remains of former champ with Anna Forester
What was left of the former champion in 2017, with Anna Forester indicating the girth of the original trunk

Michael hoped the group’s disappointment would be short lived, because he knew where several large trees existed that might qualify as a new champion and take on the mantle from the oak that was lost. He was leading the group down a dirt road towards them when Ryan Russell (who has an uncanny eye for seeing big trees) spotted the huge oak in a bottom along a dry stream. “I hollered at Michael to stop the truck,” Ryan recalls. “I bailed off into the head-high brush as Michael reminded me to watch out for rattlesnakes!” Ryan’s derring-do was rewarded by an encounter with a remarkable tree: “It had lots of unique character and measured 60 ft tall, 203 inches in circumference, and 72 ft spread, for a total of 281 points on American Forests’s scale.”

Ryan Russell and the Rattlesnakes
Ryan Russell checking for rattlesnakes on his way to the future champion in August 2017 © Charles Snyers

Michael duly reported the tree and its measurements to the National Register of Big Trees and its status as the National Champion Gray Oak was confirmed.

Champion Oak Ceritificate

Anna Forester and Michael, tour leaders of the Pre-Conference New Mexico Tour, didn’t think twice about including the champ in the itinerary they drew up for the trip, convinced that the long detour it required into the boot heel of New Mexico would be more than compensated by the opportunity to admire the noble giant. When they learned of the Foster Fire, they feared the worst and in July decided to drive the more than 320 miles to the tree to make sure they would be able to show it to the Tour participants.

Michael Melendrez and Gray Oak
Michael Meléndrez with the champ, March 2018 © Anna Forester

Their fears were confirmed: the fire had clearly engulfed the tree, and the massive, multi-stemmed trunk was now black rather than its eponymous gray, with pieces of burnt bark flaking off. Below the canopy, the scorched earth was covered in funereal ash, though around the tree beyond the drip line new vegetation had already started to grow back. A few desiccated leaves still clung to the seared branches.

Burnt Gay Oak
Charred beyond recognition: the champion tree in July 2022

Though participants registered for the Pre-Conference New Mexico Tour will naturally lament the demise of this champ, they can rest assured that Michael and Anna will find other worthwhile attractions to replace this one in their itinerary. Who knows? Perhaps, like in 2017, they will find a new National Champion to replace the one that fire took.

Green returns
Greenery returns around the remains of the National Champion Gray Oak

Photos © Michael Meléndrez unless specified

1 See Oak News & Notes, Vol. 5 No. 2, p. 6