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Big Pine dies

MERLIN — What used to be the tallest known Ponderosa pine on the planet has died, and now its namesake campground is set to join it.

A beetle infestation has done in the 259-foot Ponderosa pine that was tallest of its ilk known for more than three decades before it was supplanted in 2011 by another tree in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest by about 9 feet.

It once was one of 61 "Living Witness Trees" tapped in 1987 as being around when the U.S. Constitution was ratified. Now its moniker is "hazard tree," one of several dead but still-standing trees whose widow-maker capabilities have closed Big Pine Campground, the 12-space area near Galice where the tree resides, according to the Forest Service.

"It's a hazard tree, so how do you reconcile that?" forest spokeswoman Chamise Kramer says. "It's incredibly difficult to cut a tree that big, and some people might be upset by that."

So the forest's Wild Rivers Ranger District now plans to rid the campground of its fire pits, picnic tables and other amenities and re-open the lands there for "dispersed" camping, just like anywhere else in the forest, Kramer says.

Forest Service requirements for addressing hazard trees don't apply in the general forest, Kramer says.

The tree and the campground are 12 miles up Forest Service Road No. 25 off the Merlin-Galice Access Road near Merlin.

The tree's death has been met with dismay by big-tree hunters like Mike Oxman, the former owner of a Grants Pass tree service who now lives in Seattle.

"I wasn't planning on this tree dying in my lifespan," says Oxman, 65.

Oxman, however, is in the midst of finding a way for the dead pine to remain alive, at least in the annals of big-tree history.

When this pine was tapped as a Living Witness Tree as part of the Constitution's bicentennial celebration, Oxman purchased a bronze plaque that has since remained a marker for the former biggest Ponderosa on the planet.

Oxman says he is arranging for the plaque to be given to the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History, possibly even by U.S. Rep. Greg Walden in July during a meeting of tree-surgeon associations in Washington, D.C.

"I think it's time to continue this tree's life and extend it in a different form," Oxman says.

Kramer says Oxman is welcomed to take the plaque to the Smithsonian.

"He could go get it right now," Kramer says, "except it's snowed in."

— Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtfribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

Augie Schilling of Ashland works at measuring the current world's tallest known ponderosa pine -- at 268 feet -- in 2011. Its discovery supplanted the 259-foot tree at Big Pine Campground that has since died from beetle infestation. [Mail Tribune file photo]