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A state tree for the wrong reasons | by Tony Frates
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A state tree for the wrong reasons

In memoriam: the “Utah” Blue Spruce (1933-2014)


Utah's state tree was the Blue Spruce, Picea pungens, from 1933 to March 2014. By statute it was referred to as the Blue Spruce and that is one of its common names.


Because of the reference to our state tree as the “Colorado” Blue Spruce in 4th grade elementary school text books, some often misguided efforts have been made to change our state tree (which instead should have involved some changes to the text books). The latest of these efforts succeeded (partly as a publicity stunt) in early 2014 when Utah Governor Gary Herbert (who personally made a great push for the change and made it part of his State of the State address) signed a bill to change the state's tree to the also beautiful Quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides).


This was done however to a large degree out of ignorance.


A similar effort was made in 2008 when a 4th grade class pushed to instead make the “Utah” Juniper the state tree.


Colorado also designated the Blue Spruce but not until 1939, more than five years after Utah's designation. Supposedly Colorado had long been considering it before Utah's designation. It is not uncommon however for states to have the same state tree.


Essentially our text books were wrong in referring to the tree as only the “Colorado” Blue Spruce and should have instead educated school children (and future legislators) that common names are simply that, and that the Blue Spruce is a Utah native tree. The “Utah” juniper is also not limited in distribution to Utah.


While it is true that the Blue Spruce occurs to a greater degree in Colorado than Utah and that its type locality was named from a plant originally collected in Colorado (by Dr. Charles Parry, who also botanized in Utah and made significant botanical contributions), this does mean it is more of a Colorado than a Utah tree. In fact the Quaking Aspen has a type locality that is uncertain and is believed to be somewhere in Canada and was in any event not based on a tree from Utah. And, ironically, the aspen tree is certainly equally, if not more, iconic of Colorado than Utah. And the Quaking Aspen has a much more extensive distribution throughout much of North America compared to the more narrowly distributed Blue Spruce and is in that sense less emblematic of the western United States.


Central Utah's extensive aspen stand dubbed Pando is thought to be the largest living organism on the planet. Each connected plant is genetically identical (clones). Somehow the idea of this interconnectedness was thought to represent a symbol of Utah's reproductive prolificness, its connectedness in general, and the ability of everyone to work together collectively. Unless we consider ourselves to be genetically identical clones and have the common goal of overpopulation, this symbology is questionable. And in another ironic twist, Pando is thought to be dying from climate changes; yet our state (and federal) legislators largely “do not believe” that climate change even exists. The Blue Spruce is also to some degree a tree in trouble due to climate change, but not as much the Quaking Aspen.


Did Utah want to turn over a new leaf (the analogy used in Herbert's 2014 State of the State address) by designating a state tree the most famous member of which is dying? Is this not instead symbolic of a state that fails to use science and facts in its decision-making process? And increasingly in the West in general?


Sept. 24, 2014, Brighton area, Wasatch-Cache forest, Salt Lake County, Utah




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Taken on September 24, 2014