As championship reigns go, this one was mostly unheralded. And brief.
Three days after being crowned the largest tree of its kind in the state, possibly in the nation, a towering jack pine near Mountain Iron, Minn., was felled by a logger making room for a $40 million expansion of U.S. Steel’s Minntac mine — an expansion already put on hold.
“It’s somewhat of a tragedy,” said Dale Irish, the longtime Mountain Iron resident who until recently owned the land where the champion tree stood. He said it would have been crowned national champ, too.
But just after a state Department of Natural Resources forester measured the tree, Irish closed on a deal to sell the land to U.S. Steel. The loggers came the next day.
A U.S. Steel spokeswoman said she didn’t know whether the company was aware of the tree’s distinction or if that would have made a difference. The mine expansion was approved by the Legislature last fall. It will expand the state’s largest taconite mine by 483 acres, including the one-acre parcel Irish’s family owned for three generations.
But taconite prices have been plummeting, and U.S. Steel announced March 31 that it was idling part of its Minntac plant and would lay off about 700 workers. The expansion has been postponed.
Irish said a 10-year-legal battle with U.S. Steel preceded his decision to sell the land, just west of Virginia, Minn. He now lives at another address in Mountain Iron.
Irish’s land was critical for the mine’s expansion, said U.S. Steel spokeswoman Courtney Boone.
Before he sold, Irish took stock of the land and thought the jack pine that stood off by itself near one end of his property might be a contender for the state title, so he contacted the DNR’s big tree program.
As it happened, the reigning champion jack pine, located in Lake Bronson State Park, died over the winter. It was crowned in 1979, scoring 189 points in a system that measures a tree’s girth, height and crown spread.
Jennifer Teegarden, a DNR forestry outreach specialist, said Irish told her his land was about to be sold to U.S. Steel, so she sent a forester to measure the jack pine on March 30, a day before the deal closed.
It stood 57 feet tall, with a circumference of 7 feet, 3 inches and an average crown of 32 feet. That scored it at 152 points. It was immediately declared state champion.
Neither Teegarden nor Irish knew the jack pine was in any danger, so she didn’t immediately contact American Forests, the nonprofit conservation organization that hosts the National Register of Big Trees.
Irish said someone at U.S. Steel told him April 1 that they were done logging the area. Just in case, he staked the ground near the jack pine and tied a red ribbon to the tops of the stakes.
The next day, April 2, the parcel was clear cut.
A call to the logging company that took the tree down was not immediately returned.
Irish maintains it wasn’t necessary to cut the tree down, since his parcel will be a blast zone buffer and not mined. He’s also complained to local officials, saying his former property wasn’t allowed to be logged under local zoning rules.
It’s too late now, but he checked the National Register of Big Trees and learned his jack pine would have been named national champ, easily besting the current titleholder’s 136 point score.