An Ancient Grove of Trees Stands Tall
At a spot between the Rattlesnake Mountains and the Big Blackfoot river in Montana, there stands a grove of trees centuries older than the United States itself. the oldest ones - some more than 400 years old - are yellow-bark ponderosa pines, which are very tall and very straight, with trunks measuring as many as four-feet in diameter. Local hikers have appreciated the pines silently for years, and one of them, a women named Margrit Syroid, recently helped transform that devotion into something more tangible: protection status.
An Ambitious Proposition
In 1998, then-73-year-old Syroid was so touched by the grove, she wrote to its owner, Plum Creek Timber Company. Plum Creek happens to be one of the largest private timberland owners in the country, with holdings in 18 states. “I asked them if they’d be willing to sell Primm Ranch, but told them the best thing would be if they could donate it for posterity,” she said. “And I told them it would give them a lot of good p.r.”
The letter didn’t bring results.
“I didn’t know what kind of help I should ask for,” Syroid said. “Then I met someone from Five Valleys Land Trust, and I finally realized what I needed: somebody to communicate to Plum Creek for me.”
Five Valleys Land Trust did just that. Seven years after the meeting, Plum Creek donated a conservation easement on 112 acres of what is known as Primm Meadow. It was done in honor of David Leland, recently retired former president and chief executive officer of Plum Creek.
At one point, things looked grim. In 2003, when fires swept the area, Syroid became extremely worried. “Then somebody from Plum Creek called me and said, ‘Those famous trees are still alive,’ ” she recalled. “I started jumping up and down in my living room.”
She increased her efforts, contacting Montana State University’s forestry experts. With some of them, she helped form a group called Friends of Primm.
Early Forest Management
Peter Kolb, a forestry specialist at the University of Montana School of Forestry and an FoP, contends that the stand exists as it does today large part because of human intervention. “The whole Primm Meadow is a unique stand of trees that more than likely was created by Native Americans practicing early forest management,” he said. “To keep an area open and free of brush, they would burn it, allowing individual trees to reach large size in old age.”
Five Valleys’ latest newsletter recognized the efforts of Friends of Primm, saying the group “has brought increased attention to the treasures of the meadow, and has worked diligently to develop a plan to capitalize on the opportunities the land holds for all of us. Chief among those are educational opportunities.
The Value of Trees
“The significance of these trees to science is great,” Don Bertolette, a restoration forester with Grand Canyon National Park, wrote in an e-mail. “ These are remnants of forest stands that express the potential of those ponderosa pine/Douglas fir ecosystems, in the absence of post-Euramerican settlement disturbance…. To have relatively undisturbed stands in Montana is also valuable, for representatives demonstrating some of the northern extents of the latitudinal range of the species."
“It would have been very valuable for Plum Creek to have cut them down,” Syroid remarked. Professor Kolb estimated the pines’ value to be between half a million and a million dollars.
Syroid summed up the results of her hard work as follows, “The land still belongs to Plum Creek but the easement means nothing can be changed on the land—I’m very happy.”
by Elizabeth Manus
Photo by Jim Berkey, Five Valleys Land Trust