A tree named Gypsy
Fort Lewis relocates 180-year-old Rocky Mountain juniper

Gypsy, a 180-year-old juniper, right, awaits the burlap warp for her root ball last week at Fort Lewis College. The juniper, which has been moved beforem was relcoated along with a neighboring crab apple tree (left.) The trees were moved to another spot on campus to make room for the new College Union Building./Photo by Steven DiSanto

by Jules Masterjohn

This week, in cities and campuses across the country, Earth Day is being celebrated. April is also designated as Earth Month, offering a more extended opportunity to raise awareness about the blue sphere we call home.

However, it was pure coincidence that during the month dedicated to honoring Planet Earth, a 180-year-old tree and two of its younger companions were given new life. The trees were part of a massive relocation effort on the Fort Lewis College campus as preparations for the construction of the new student union building. This act of arboreal preservation is in keeping with the intention of the building project as one of “the most ecologically friendly union buildings in the country.”

The college is off to an admirable start with the relocation of “Gypsy,” a Rocky Mountain juniper native to the FLC site. Gypsy got her name due to her nomadic “nature” – she has been moved twice in her lifetime, which is highly unusual for tree. The team from Animas Valley Arborists, headed up by owner and arborist David Temple, bestowed the 38,500-pound specimen with the name.

Temple has known Gypsy since the mid ’90s. His company was first hired to determine which trees would best survive a move, once again to make way for college construction. Temple and crew moved Gypsy from an area near Berndt Hall to her now-former location between the college union and the library. Since then, the tree has survived and thrived, with a canopy circumference extending more than 30 feet, providing significant shade in the summertime. Former president Joel Jones, who was at the helm during Gypsy’s first move, recalls having innumerable conversations with students and faculty under the massive old tree. “There is history there,” he said. “You can’t put a monetary value on the amount of human sharing that took place under that tree.”

Citing the many benefits of saving old trees like Gypsy, Temple is passionate about the environmental and aesthetic value of relocating them whenever feasible. “There are the cumulative benefits of trees the size and age of Gypsy, such as temperature amelioration, erosion control and air cleaning,” he said. “Then there are those intangibles like the conversations that go on under the tree. People don’t stop on the hot sidewalk to talk, they gravitate to the tree for the coolness provided by the shade. I’d estimate that over 20 people could comfortably sit under the shade canopy of Gypsy. It would take 30 to 40 years for that benefit to be given by a new, smaller tree if planted today.”

Temple noted that bigger trees are more helpful in urban settings, both for their heating and cooling virtues. “Little trees take many years before they can be fully functioning in the environment. That means providing cooling in an environment where asphalt and concrete get heated up and warming the environment by reducing the wind velocity,” he said. “Big trees produce more oxygen because they store more carbon, which in an urban environment where there are more cars and other pollutants, is more needed.”

Temple reports that Rocky Mountain junipers are reported to live up to 450 years, meaning Gypsy has spent what could be half her life on the college mesa. In human terms, this seems very old, but of course, not all things are measured by human time. To the West, the Utah juniper is known to live more than 2,000 years, and in the eastern mountains of California, there is a bristlecone pine named “Methuselah” that is said to be more than 5,000 years old. In Sweden last year, the oldest tree found so far was discovered, a spruce that carbon dates to 9,550 years.

Some have been heard grumbling about the approximately $50,000 it cost to relocate Gypsy and the nearly 40-year-old crab apple and similarly aged Colorado blue spruce nearby.

Temple credited Jones for making a commitment to save and relocate campus trees. Jones, in turn, gave credit to a group of students and a biology professor for bringing to his attention the importance of saving established trees. “If we can move it, we will move it,” Temple recalled Jones saying.

The process of moving a 19-ton, nearly two-century-old native tree requires planning, expertise and heavy equipment. Gypsy’s move began with arborists digging a narrow trench around her root ball to safely and gently cut her surface roots. Next, an excavator was used to remove all the soil around the 12-foot root ball, digging down to a depth of 4 feet. The arborists then wrapped the root ball with burlap in order to hold the soil firmly in place. Finally, a welding crew fabricated a metal basket around the large root ball and attached handles to the basket for lifting. A heavy chain was used to cut under the small remaining pedestal of soil that still connected Gypsy to the earth. Once free, she was lifted onto a trailer and driven to her new home near Animas Hall, the under-construction student dormitory on the east side of campus. The entire process, for moving three trees in the manner, took seven days.

However, the transplanting of existing trees and vegetation has not stopped with Gypsy and her two companions. Cathy Gore, FLC campus architect and facility planner, is overseeing the relocation of a forest of plants adjacent to the college union. “The biology department was horrified about taking the old trees down,” she said. “They asked us to save what we could because the existing vegetated area is rich in native diversity and is a teaching lab for our students. Professor Page Lindsey was passionate about what was happening and she asked us to ‘stop, take some time and look back.’”

Ultimately, Gore and others worked with Animas Valley Arborists to identify smaller trees that were moveable. The plants that won’t be relocated on campus will be made available for community members this Saturday.

Not every tree is valuable enough to be moved, said Temple, and several trees will not be relocated due to a potentially low success rate. Gypsy, however, is a textbook example of one that should be spared. Her longevity on the site as well as her good health and vigor are only a few of the compelling reasons to save her. “That tree is walked under by more people in this county than any other tree I can image,” Temple offered. “Large urban trees provide great benefits to man and are worth saving.” •



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