Why is State Parks razing Soldier Hollow’s historic willows?

Massive trees threaten the safety of new campground, even though “proximity to trees” is the reason the site was selected.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jenifer Tringham sits within the trunk of Soldier Hollow's black willow, locally nicknamed the Woman Tree, Thursday, July 7, 2022. Utah State Parks plans to remove 10 ancient black willow trees at Soldier Hollow because they pose a danger to the park's new campground, whose site was chosen because of its proximity to trees.

Utah’s Soldier Hollow is best known as an Olympic cross country ski venue, but its most cherished natural feature is a grove of majestic black willows whose branches reach overhead enclosing a space of reverential peace, a place Jenifer Tringham describes as a “fairy nook.”

Proximity to these trees was the reason Utah State Parks picked this spot for a new campground, now under construction as part of an upgrade program for Wasatch Mountain State Park.

So it strikes Tringham, a Heber City shop owner, as the height of irony that the park plans to remove 10 of the trees, an unfortunate step needed to ensure the safety of the new campground.

“It’s a bird paradise. There’s just so many different birds and owls and baby owls and whatnot and nature just thrives here. It’s gorgeous,” Tringham said Wednesday. “It’s one of those unkept secrets. We feel like we’re the first people to come to explore it. But actually, so many locals cherish this area. They use it for family reunions. They’ve had services here for loved ones that have passed. It’s a very sacred area.”

The tree-removal plan sounds like a line straight out of Joni Mitchell’s classic song “Big Yellow Taxi,” about paving paradise into a parking lot and not knowing what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone. Likewise, Tringham and others are concerned that State Parks’ push to expand recreational amenities in parks is putting at risk some of the natural features that draw people to the parks in the first place.

Last month, Tringham raised an alarm about the trees’ fate just as machinery was poised to start taking them out, spurring a public outcry that has prompted the Department of Natural Resources to pause construction and re-evaluate the plan.

“Let’s bring in additional arborists, safety engineers, construction groups,” said Devan Chavez, a spokesman for State Parks. “Are there are other options here? Are there not? What is the concern on the safety? How far do things need to be away from specific things?”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jenifer Tringham, right and Ed Hendershot walk the grounds of a black willow grove, right, a place Tringham describes as a "fairy nook."

The agency will compile a report to guide how to proceed, but he noted that many of the willows, while impressive, are elderly and are liable to shed big branches as they weaken. Chavez stressed that State Parks is taking community concerns seriously and intends to be transparent.

“When they go camping, they want to be around trees, they want to be around beauty. Campground or no campground, some of the trees started collapsing during windstorms,” Chavez said. “Regardless of whether any design changes come from this campground, the big thing is making sure that we take care of these trees. We don’t want them to fall on people, hikers, the roadway.”

Celeste Johnson, mayor of nearby Midway, believes State Parks is handling the situation appropriately, praising the agency for listening to concerned citizens while prioritizing safety.

“They’ve put the project on yet another hold while they look at this,” Johnson said. “Are there things we could do to make the trees safer and save the trees? I love that in Midway’s backyard we’ve got trees that are really old and that’s pretty cool in Utah. We don’t have a lot of that, especially a deciduous tree.”

She was on the site Wednesday with an arborist hired by State Parks to examine trees. Johnson suspects some of the larger trees’ days are numbered, considering their advanced age.

“They appreciate that these are old historic trees, trees that have lived far longer than their typical life,” she said “When that happens with an old tree, the tree doesn’t become stronger and better. It typically becomes weaker.”

Wasatch Mountain is Utah’s largest state park at more than 21,000 acres, seeing more than a half-million visitors last year.

A historic site where the U.S. Army camped in the 1850s and Native Americans before that, Soldier Hollow was added to the park following the 2002 Winter Olympics, along with its facilities that include The Chalet, located by the willows near the shore of Deer Creek Reservoir. Popular campgrounds are located on the opposite side of the park up Pine Canyon Road, but there is nowhere to camp in the park’s lower reaches.

“Visitation is skyrocketing everywhere. That’s a big park. Instead of just trying to put more sites right next to existing campgrounds, why not spread them out?” Chavez said. “Why not give people access to other beautiful areas of the park?”

The plan is to install 10 campsites near The Chalet and the existing trailhead for the path that follows the reservoir’s north shore. Chavez said State Parks intends to plant 37 trees to replace the 10 that would be lost.

But it would take decades to fill the void left by the removal of the massive trees, depriving birds and other wildlife of critical habitat and humans a peaceful place to connect with nature, according to photographer Stephanie Neal.

“It doesn’t make sense to me. This is a sacred spot,” Neal said. “People appreciate the beauty and its wildness and it seems they want to turn it into a theme park. I don’t understand why they would remove the trees and not design the campground around them. We don’t need another RV park up there.”

Neal, a 16-year Midway resident, is a portrait photographer who shoots in natural settings and is often drawn to Soldier Hollow’s willow grove as a backdrop.

Another photographer, Willie Holdman of Park City, said he understands the public safety concerns, but he fears State Parks is prioritizing construction over preservation, not just at Wasatch Mountain, but elsewhere in the state’s 45-park system.

“Storms come; winds blow. They don’t want the trees coming down on people,” Holdman said. “If it’s dangerous then locate it someplace else. When I think of parks, I think of trees.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jenifer Tringham stands next to the black willow grove's largest tree.

Tringham’s favorite willow is one that was struck by lightning years ago and now holds a feature that resembles a womb. This one she calls The Woman Tree. It is now slated for removal, marked with orange paint. So is the grove’s largest inhabitant, on which the paint has been applied in a smiley face.

Holdman and Tringham recently wrapped a 25-foot measuring tape around the trunk of this tree in an effort to see how it stacks up against the largest known black willows. The conservation group American Forests maintains the National Register of Champion Trees, listing the largest examples of 561 species.

On the Soldier Hollow willow, Holdman’s tape was at least a foot too short of reaching around the trunk, putting its diameter on par with the nation’s largest known black willow, which grows in Minnesota. According to the registry, that tree’s diameter is 26 feet, 3 inches when measured 4.5 feet above the ground.

The grove’s fans are flummoxed that a tree of such stature could be sacrificed for the sake of squeezing more vehicles into the park. At a time of breakneck growth, they say, now is the time to save natural treasures like Soldier Hollow’s willows, which will become more and more precious as Utah’s landscapes are bulldozed into subdivisions, freeways, and of course, parking lots.

“There’s got to be respect, balance, and also being responsible. And I don’t see developers in any part of Utah really doing that,” Tringham said. “And with all of the things going on in the world, people need that. We need to connect and we need to have peace. We need to calm ourselves. That’s what nature does.”