Paul Ries believes Oregon’s trees have stories to tell. And since they can’t speak for themselves, he speaks for them.
Ries heads up the graduate certificate program in urban forestry at Oregon State University’s College of Forestry, where he has also served as an instructor and Extension agent, but in the mid-1990s he was working for the Oregon Department of Forestry. That’s when he and others were recruited by legendary big-tree hunter Maynard Drawson to help preserve some of state’s most magnificent specimens.
“Maynard walked into my office one day and said, ‘Do you know there’s not a statewide heritage tree program anywhere?’” Ries recalled. “He wanted me to help him start an Oregon heritage tree commission, so I said, ‘Why not?’”
Drawson, who tracked down and documented numerous record-holding trees around the state, died in 2012. But the Oregon Heritage Tree Committee, which he founded along with Ries and several others in 1995, lives on, helping to preserve trees that represent some of the largest individuals of their species or hold special cultural or historic significance. Last year the committee honored Ries with it highest distinction, the Maynard C. Drawson Memorial Award.
In honoring Ries, the committee noted his dedication to the heritage tree program, from personally inspecting candidates to spreading the word about the program throughout the state.
If you ask Ries why he devoted so much time and effort to the program over the years, he’s liable to quote from some of the committee’s promotional material.
“These are the trees that tie us to our historical roots. They’re silent witnesses to the people and places and events that make Oregon unique,” Ries recited.
“It’s kind of our mantra.”
And, in fact, working with the committee allowed Ries to have a hand in preserving a number of trees with ties to the state’s history.
There’s the “moon tree” on the grounds of the Oregon State Capitol in Salem, a Douglas fir that was part of a NASA experiment during the Apollo 14 mission in 1971. Astronaut Stuart Roosa carried 500 seeds with him on the flight and attempted to germinate them as his spacecraft orbited the moon. Most of the seeds germinated successfully, and many of the seedlings were later given away for replanting during the national bicentennial celebration in 1976. Six of the “moon trees” ended up in Oregon (including one that is still growing on the OSU campus near Peavy Hall).
Then there’s another tree at the Capitol, a maple planted by former Gov. Tom McCall. There was plenty of anecdotal evidence for the link between the tree and the highly regarded Oregon politician, but the connection had never been documented — until Ries took up the task.
“I went and got a researcher’s pass to the state archives in Salem and went through the personal papers of Gov. Tom McCall,” Ries said.
Ries also had a leading role in restoring the Grove of the States.
Planted in 1967 in response to Lady Bird Johnson’s call for a national highway beautification program, the grove adorns the French Prairie Rest Area on Interstate 5 just south of Wilsonville and incorporates the official tree of every state in the union. Outside of a similar collection planted in 1987 at the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., it’s the only such grove in the country, according to Ries.
“Over the years it fell into disrepair,” he said.
Some of the trees had not fared well outside their native environment, and others had been planted too close together.
But one of Ries’ grad students at Oregon State, Brad Hamel, wrote a restoration plan for the grove as a master’s project. Beginning in 2015, Ries led the charge to put the plan into action, mobilizing volunteers and working with OSU, Friends of Trees, the Oregon Department of Forestry and the Oregon Travel Information Council.
“This was a huge project with a lot of moving pieces,” he said. “We planted 21 new trees.”
Last August, on the 50th anniversary of the grove’s dedication, it was inducted into the Oregon heritage tree program.
Ries was also on the committee that inducted the Hager Grove pear, the last remnant of an orchard planted in 1850 by a pioneer named Benjamin Franklin Munkre. Located at the junction of Interstate 5 and Highway 22 in Salem, the tree is 65 feet tall and 9 feet in circumference and reportedly still bears fruit.
But what really makes it special is its story.
Munkre came west from Missouri over the Oregon Trail in the 1840s. He brought his bride, Polly, with him, but was so concerned about her poor health that he built a coffin and brought it along in case she died along the way. She survived the trip, riding to Oregon in style on a pad atop the coffin, and the family settled in what is now the Salem area. According to Ries, the change of climate did Polly Munkre a world of good.
“She regained her health,” he said. “But over the course of time, Mr. Munkre passed away — so she buried him in that coffin he had made for her.”