Shakes tree to stand until rededication

A debate over whether to cut down one of the oldest trees on Chief Shakes Island was temporarily resolved last week after the Wrangell Cooperative Association Board of Directors voted recently to remove it – and the issue was brought up for discussion during the WCA general membership meeting on Wednesday, Nov. 14.

The tree, a cottonwood that is estimated by local botanist Glen Decker to be approximately 100 years old, sits on the northwestern corner of the island, adjacent to the location of the Eagle Totem, which was removed in late 2011 for restoration.

After a unanimous vote by the WCA general membership during the bi-annual meeting, it was decided that the tree will stand at least until after the rededication of the island and Tribal House in May of next year.

The vote came after discussion and a heartfelt talk by Marge Byrd, a Tlingit elder whose mother reportedly planted the tree.

“That tree has been there a long time,” Byrd began. “I called my family and some other people about it because it’s very emotional, but I had some good input and some of them said they should brace it up so it’s there for the dedication. After that, they can take it down and maybe plant a new one that would have been planted the year of our dedication, which would still have a great meaning to it.”

Eliciting laughter from the gathering, Byrd also commented on what a member of her family told her might be the best idea.

“My niece Dawn said, ‘You get down there and chain yourself to that tree,’” she said. “I know the Eagles aren’t going to be very happy, but it’s something that needs to be done because 15 or 20 years from now if you get a big wind that blows it over, there goes our house.”

Todd White, the project manager for the renovation project on the island, said the need to remove the tree comes out of an abundance of economic caution on the part of the WCA board.

“I know it has been there a long time and it’s very important to Marge,” White said. “We have a report that says we can band it and trim it and it might stand for years. But, the thing about cottonwoods is they are extremely heavy and when they fall they don’t come down the way they are supposed to. The concerns that the council has are that if it falls forward, it takes out the Eagle Totem, which has a price of $220,000. If it falls backwards, it takes out the house. That is $1 million with another million worth of artwork in it.”

Decker’s report, which was commissioned by the WCA, states that his study of the tree shows an old tree in the middle of its life cycle.

“The lifespan of Cottonwoods can run from 100 to 400 years old, but more commonly tends to be from 100 to 200 years old,” Decker’s report states. “The tree has a healthy root zone, trunk flare and crown. The codominant stems, or ‘fork’ of the tree is the only visible defect. The fork union is ‘U’ shaped and without decay, which is a good sign, however, any fork attached this low on the tree can pose a hazard.”

The possibility of the tree falling over and into the new Shakes Tribal House, while not directly addressed, is briefly touched upon in the report.

“As far as the potential for the tree falling over, with the healthy root zone and overall health of the tree, combined with the pruning treatments it has received previously, I would say that it is unlikely to fall over with normal weather situations,” Decker added.

Decker also included that recommended hazard abatements would be to prune the upper canopy first, remove some of the larger branches under what he calls the “pedestrian zone,” and, “above where the new totem will be positioned.”

Another safety feature Decker recommended would be the installation of a brace in the fork of the tree, which he states, “will reinforce the codominant or ‘fork’ stems while still allowing the crown of the tree to move naturally.”

According to White, Decker has purchased an appropriate brace for installation in the near future.

“He ordered it tonight,” White said after the meeting had concluded.

White also told the membership about the progress on the rest of the island.

“We’re probably within 45 days of completion or maybe even less than that,” White said. “15 days of that will be moving artwork into the house, but that may be done in the spring because we need good weather to do that.”

According to White, master carver Steve Brown will be in Wrangell beginning in February and will stay through the rededication to carve the screen for the house.

Along with fellow master carver Wayne Price, Brown was one of the main participants in the renovation of totems at Kiks.ádi Park. He is now engaged in research of the artifacts of Tlingit culture in the region.


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