When the Ute Council Tree was a very small sapling, about 215 years ago, Thomas Jefferson was president of the United States. The strong and mighty Ute Indians roamed freely through the area that later became known as western Colorado. The Ute Council Tree provided a gathering place where tribal leaders could talk about important issues while children played in the shade of the tree.
While the Utes were removed from western Colorado, the tree remains a living symbol of the Ute people, the oldest continuous residents of Colorado.
"We no longer live here ... we were removed and placed in Utah, but even though we're no longer here our relatives still reside here, our way of life still resides here. We always have a desire to return to where we came from," said Shaun Chapoose, a representative from the Northern Ute Tribe who was among those gathered for a dedication ceremony at the tree last Friday.
After a gigantic limb dropped to the ground on Aug. 1, a certified arborist was brought in to evaluate the health of the tree. He extended a tape measure and inserted it into one side of the scarred tree trunk. It went through the middle of the tree and out the other side, evidence of the fragile condition of the tree. With the crown of the tree containing the only remaining branches, it was feared a good wind would increase the risk of a catastrophic failure.
The risk proved unacceptable to the Delta County Historical Society, owner of the historic landmark. For the safety of nearby property as well as the risk to people in the vicinity, the decision was made to remove the majority of the tree.
A short dedication ceremony was planned beforehand, and notice went out to the Utes about a week and a half ago. But at the dedication ceremony, tribal representatives from the Ute Mountain Utes, Southern Ute and Northern Ute tribes took the Delta County Historical Society to task for moving so quickly to cut down the tree.
Jim Wetzel, museum curator, later said the Delta County Historical Society Board of Trustees felt a sense of urgency.
"It's a danger right now," he said.
"You all don't know what this old fellow here means to us people," said Terry Knight. "You don't know who camped under here, talking about this, talking about that. This is part of our heritage -- something we can see and feel. We can come and look at it and think of all those years that the Utes have been here and what has happened ... the life on the trail they followed, good and bad."
"We revered this grandfather here. This could have been done in a nicer way."
Several times, the Utes also expressed disappointment in the cancellation of the Council Tree Pow Wow, hosted by the City of Delta for 16 years.
Initially, the historical society had planned on leaving 10-12 feet of the trunk. At the suggestion of one tribal representative, the height was increased to 25 feet, which could possibly accommodate a carving of some type. A memorial recognizing the historical and cultural significance of the tree is being planned. Suggestions are being welcomed by the Delta County Historical Society at 874-8721.
Although statues are being torn down elsewhere across the country, Mayor Ed Sisson said the Ute Council Tree memorial will stand for generations to come.
"We're to honor that tree, not to dishonor anyone or anything," he said at the dedication ceremony.
In fact, city manager David Torgler pointed out in comments read by Mayor Sisson, the historical society has taken many steps over the years to preserve and protect the tree.
As the dedication ceremony came to a close, a crane from Doughty Steel and trucks from Wells Excavating were moved into position. After the first limbs were being loaded, several Utes clipped branches and leaves in the hope they'll be able to grow saplings from the tree. The limbs were removed to a storage area which contains other fallen limbs from the tree. The remnants of the tree will be made available to the Ute tribes. Slabs from the tree are also being offered to the public by the Delta County Historical Society.
Efforts to clone the tree for survival have previously proven successful. In 1994, Eugene Naranjo took cuttings back to the Southern Ute forestry department where they were nurtured into viable saplings. Seven of them were planted around the pow wow arbor, each to represent the original seven Ute bands. Of the seven, six survive.
It was announced the cost of removing the tree, estimated at about $6,000, was largely covered by the Council Tree Investors of Grand Junction.
Even though the top of the tree has been removed, its roots run deep, Chapoose said. "The remnants will be here for all time and eternity," and will hopefully serve as a reminder to all people.
Two fatal accidents occurred in Delta County within a two-day span last week.
Casey Gillenwater, 25, of Delta was killed the afternoon of Wednesday, Sept. 13, in a single-vehicle rollover on Highway 133 outside of Hotchkiss.