FAIRBANKS — Fairbanks’ biggest, oldest Christmas tree may be coming down.
The 70-foot-tall white spruce tree in front of the Farmhouse Visitor Center at Creamer’s Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge on College Road is dying and likely will be cut down this fall because of damage caused by spruce bark beetles.
The top half of the tree is dead, evidenced by its reddish-brown appearance, and the rest of the tree will be dead by next year, said a state forester who examined the tree and diagnosed it with a bad case of spruce bark beetles.
“This is not a healthy tree,” refuge manager Cathie Harms with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game said on Wednesday as she stood looking up at the big conifer.
ADFG, the agency that manages the refuge, has consulted tree experts from the state Division of Forestry and University of Alaska Fairbanks to determine whether part of the tree could be saved before deciding whether to cut down.
“We’re consulting experts and figuring out what our options are,” Harms said. “If we can find a way to regenerate the tree, I think there would be community support to do it.”
The department will come up with a plan of action in the next week or two, she said. If the tree does need to be cut down, it will be done this fall, Harms said.
One of the experts who examined the tree, state forester Jim Smith of the Division of Forestry, said there is nothing that can be done to help the tree.
“The tree cannot be saved,” Smith wrote in an email to the News-Miner. “Next summer, the entire tree will be red ... and dead.”
It was obvious there was something wrong this spring when the top half of the tree remained brown instead of greening up, Harms said.
“It wasn’t like this last year,” she said.
The tree was planted next to the farmhouse in 1934 by former owners Charlie and Anna Creamer, who owned the farm before it was sold to the state and turned into a refuge in the early 1970s, when it was just 10 feet tall, said Mark Ross, an ADFG education specialist who knows the history of the refuge as well as anyone.
The tree, estimated to be about 100 years old, now towers over the farmhouse and serves as a community Christmas tree each winter. Lights were strung around the tree about 15 years ago, and ADFG plugs the tree in during the first week of December. The tree lighting ceremony is an annual event on the refuge.
“We know a lot of people who really like that tree, especially in winter when it’s lit up, but also in summer because it’s a neat tree to look at,” Harms said.
Ross, whose second-story farmhouse office window looks out at the tree, was especially hard hit by news of the tree’s demise. While he hesitated to use the word tragedy, Ross couldn’t come up with another term to describe it.
“This tree is like an old friend that’s sick,” said Ross, who has looked out at the tree for the past 16 years.
The tree gets a lot of use in the summer from children playing under it and Ross and other teachers have used the “tree room” formed by the bottom boughs to teach classes for children, he said.
“A lot of people spend time out here and the tree is a big part of it,” he said.
Signs of stress
The tree has developed large frost cracks in recent years and sap is oozing from them, a sign the tree is under stress, said UAF ecology professor Glenn Juday, who examined the tree about five years ago but hasn’t seen it recently. Insects such as spruce bark beetles typically invade injured or stressed trees, he said.
Damage as a result of spruce bark beetles is becoming more common in white spruce trees around Fairbanks, Smith said.
“I am seeing these in many places around Fairbanks,” Smith wrote.
Using the tree as a Christmas tree probably didn’t help it, either, Juday said.
“When I looked at it, there were all sorts of lights and fasteners attached to it,” he said. “That kind of treatment increases the odds you’re going to have an unhealthy outcome in the future.
“It usually takes a couple decades to catch up to the tree and that’s about the right schedule,” he said.
Ironically, it was its use as a Christmas tree that saved it up to this point. The tree was nearly taken down about 15 years ago when the farmhouse was retrofitted as a passive solar building, Harms said. Windows were strategically added to the farmhouse to invite more sun in to help defray heating costs and the tree prevented maximum sunlight from hitting the farmhouse, she said.
“Some people (within ADFG) wanted to get rid of the tree to allow the passive solar building to get the sun it needed,” she said.
Others wanted to preserve the tree because it was part of the history of the Creamer’s Dairy, the remaining buildings of which were placed in the National Historic Register of Places in 1977.
“The protect-the-tree people won when they made it a Christmas tree,” Harms said.
While 100 isn’t especially old for a white spruce tree, some of which live to be older than 400, it is the point when trees start to feel their age, Juday said.
“The mortality rate on white spruce trees starts to go up when they hit 100,” he said.