Grove of the States offers a unique tree collection

by: JOSH KULLA - The Grove of the States at the Baldock Rest Area is shady, quiet and provides a nice walking path. It's also overcrowded when it comes to the trees, which are becoming unhealthy and stressed in some cases. Virtually no one in Wilsonville has heard of the Grove of the States.

Located just a few miles south of town at the soon-to-be-former Baldock State Rest Area off Interstate 5, the Grove of the States is a unique arboretum featuring the state tree of all 50 states in the union, or as close to that as its founders could manage back when it was planted in late 1967.

Now almost a half-century old, it is almost certainly the oldest such arboretum in the country. Along with the 1980s vintage U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., the Grove of the States also is one of only two known to contain examples of all 50 state trees.

You’d think this would attract a certain amount of attention.

But according to Paul Ries, a professor with Oregon State University and the urban forestry director for the Oregon Department of Forestry, nothing resembling promotion ever has been attempted on behalf of the grove.

“Most of the visitors are accidental ones,” said Ries. “They happen upon the site instead of going out and looking for it. Because there’s not much signage, there’s no chance to learn about the trees. There’s never been an effort to explain the significance of the site to people.”

He said that’s a shame, considering the grove not only is unique in terms of its trees, but also because it has its roots in the Highway Beautification Act of 1965 championed by then First Lady Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson.

“There’s a great story there,” Ries said. “In my mind, there’s definitely a historical significance to these trees, but if we leave it in the state it’s in now we’re going to lose the opportunity to connect people with the trees and their historical significance.”

“It is a very unique feature,” agreed Annie Von Domitz, the chief community assets officer for Oregon Travel Experience, or OTE.

Von Domitz explained that the grove originally was planted by the state highway commission in 1967 to celebrate, of all things, a national conference of state attorneys general being held that summer in Portland.

The brainchild of Oregon Attorney General Robert Thornton, the idea quickly gained steam. Working together with the Oregon Association of Nurserymen, the grove was planted and installed under Thornton’s direction in time for the conference. It was dedicated Aug. 28, 1967, with a ceremony to which Mrs. Johnson accepted an invitation but was unable to attend.

“The idea came from Ladybird Johnson’s Highway Beautification Act,” Von Domitz said. “It was all about beautifying the highways, and that was part of the reason they did it. She accepted the invitation but had to cancel attendance, so she was involved with it, too, which was kind of neat.”by: JOSH KULLA - This pagoda tree representing the U.S. Virgin Islands is representative of the lengths the groves creators went to in order to ensure all 50 states - and then some - were represented.

A survey of assets

The OTE is a quasi-public firm with an annual budget of more than $6 million drawn from advertising as well as the Oregon Department of Transportation. Oregon Travel Experience was given responsibility by the state in 2010 for maintaining and operating nine rest stops at five locations. Those included Baldock, which the Oregon Travel Commission voted last month to redesignate the French Prairie Rest Stop.

In 2012, OTE was given responsibility for maintaining additional rest stops and now is in charge of 20. Three more will be added in 2014.

There is, however, nothing like the Grove of the States at any of them.

According to Von Domitz, when the OTE started maintaining highway rest stops three years ago, the grove quickly stood out as a potential attraction. by:  JOSH KULLA - The Connecticut white oak is one state tree that has not had trouble thriving at the Grove of the States.

So they decided to see exactly what they had on their hands. What they found was both encouraging as well as challenging.

“It was planted and just became part of the landscape,” said Von Domitz. “It was mowed and when a tree died they’d cut it down and that’s about all that’s happened. When we took over management in 2010 it was definitely identified as something we wanted resources to improve.”

To help the process along, OTE contacted Ries at Oregon State University for help. The agency, in turn, wound up hiring graduate student Brad Hamel, who was pursuing a master’s degree in urban forestry, to complete a survey of the grove and its trees and draw up recommendations on how best to preserve them. by:  JOSH KULLA - This Florida flowering dogwood tree is one example of a substitute species, planted because the actual state tree, in this case the sabal palm, is not suited to Oregon's climate.

“So he did an assessment of trees and an analysis of the situation and how it can be improved,” Ries said. “He came up with different options, the recommended option of which is to remove some trees that are struggling and to remove some Douglas firs that are shading the arboretum out. And then we want to replant and expand it out.”

The biggest problem right now, Ries explained, is that the original trees were planted too closely together. The resulting overcrowding has damaged or killed some of the trees, and threatens to continue to do so if not corrected.

“A number are dead and have been removed,” Ries said. “There are not 50 trees there anymore, and there are a number of trees out there that are in a significant state of decline and will only continue to decline. They really need to be removed and replanted in a broader area.”

Hamel’s recommendation is to expand the arboretum by at least 50 percent of its current size to allow the remaining trees adequate space, as well as ensure space for new trees. In addition, greatly expanded onsite interpretive and educational features, some of them digital, not only could serve the public but help the grove gain recognition by the state’s heritage tree program. by:  JOSH KULLA - The Grove of the States can be found just behind the parking lot on the southbound side of the Baldock Rest Area off Interstate 5.

In today’s world of public budgets, however, funding for such a project remains up in the air and would require “heavy coordination” with ODOT, Von Domitz said. Even a cost estimate doesn’t yet exist. But Von Domitz and Ries both agree that it is a slice of Oregon heritage well worth saving.

“It is one of those things that people just discover,” said Von Domitz. “ODOT never made an attempt to advertise it, so it’s a fun discovery when you stop there. The signs then were high tech for 1967, and they’ve held up pretty well, but we can do a lot better.”

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