Oregon's Big Pine: Standing tall when the U.S. Constitution was signed

National anniversaries can be celebrated in many ways—parades, fireworks displays, and, of course, museum exhibitions. In 1983 Congress established a federal commission to encourage and coordinate what became an eclectic range of commemorative activities for the bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution. One of the more unusual of those activities showcased "living witness trees."

A composite image showing two sides of a bicentennial coin, and the exhibit for "A More Perfect Union."
The National Museum of American History marked the bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution by developing the exhibition "A More Perfect Union: Japanese Americans and the United States Constitution." The U.S. Mint issued a commemorative silver dollar.

The International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) and the National Arborist Association (NAA; now called the Tree Care Industry Association) decided to combine national history with natural history by creating a bicentennial tree recognition program. Communities around the country would nominate significant trees that were over 200 years of age—trees that were, in effect, living witnesses to the time of the Constitution's signing on September 17, 1787.

The ISA and NAA ultimately certified 61 trees as U.S. Constitution Bicentennial Living Witness Trees. They varied widely: from a coastal redwood in Palo Alto, California, to an American beech in Columbia, Maryland; from a bur oak in Madison, Wisconsin, to a live oak in Charleston, South Carolina; from a bristlecone pine near Cedar City, Utah, to a sugar maple in Norwich, Connecticut; from a pecan in Dallas, Texas, to a white oak in Princeton, New Jersey.

Each of these trees had special meaning to its local community, and each was identified with a bronze plaque. For example when a grand, 250-year-old valley oak in the small town of Healdsburg, 70 miles north of San Francisco, earned bicentennial status in 1987, the Healdsburg Tribune proudly proclaimed: "A witness to the signing of the United States Constitution—alive and well right here in Healdsburg!"

Not all of the 61 trees are still living today, but one of them is newly represented in the museum's collections, thanks to the efforts of the arborist Michael Oxman, who had nominated Oregon's famed "Big Pine" as a U.S. Constitution bicentennial witness tree. Although Native peoples had occupied present-day Oregon for over 10,000 years, few Europeans had ventured there by 1787 when the Constitution was signed. That would change in the years following 1805, when Lewis and Clark's journey across the continent reached Oregon's Pacific coastline. Located in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, about 20 miles southwest of Grants Pass, Oregon, the 250-foot giant was the world's tallest-known ponderosa pine. Arborists estimated its age at over 350 years. Although old, it was not ancient for this tree species that can live to well over 400 years. Surrounded by majestic groves of undisturbed, old-growth forest, the tree formed the centerpiece of the Big Pine Campground.

An older picture of a man with the big pine tree. The picture was taken from behind, so it features the man with his hand on Big Pine tree, his back to the camera, and the forest beyond.
Given its size and location, Big Pine became one of Oregon's most photographed trees. The Forest Service established a custom of having newly assigned District Rangers photographed next to the famed ponderosa pine. This 1950 image pictures Hugh Ritter, District Ranger of the Galice Ranger District (now the Wild Rivers Ranger District). Photograph by Ernest E. Shank, courtesy of USDA Forest Service.

After Oxman's application was approved, he led the effort to raise money for casting and installing the official commemorative bronze plaque. The Forest Service built a stone pedestal to display the plaque, as well as a rustic, split-rail fence to keep visitors from compacting the soil near Big Pine. The dedication ceremony took place on June 24, 1989. The District Ranger's press release invited local community members to "explore the outdoors by celebrating Big Pine Day." In addition to the dedication ceremony, Forest Service staff presented interpretive talks about wildlife, forest management, and firefighting. They also opened the forest's first "barrier-free trail system," designed to enable "the elderly and physically-challenged an opportunity to enjoy the beauty of a short walk through a grove of towering Pine trees."

Two men stand in front of Big Pine.
Posing in front of Big Pine, with the U.S. Constitution bicentennial tree plaque between them, the man on the left is the arborist Michael Oxman, while the mustachioed man is the professional tree climber and writer Jerry Beranek. Courtesy of G. F. Beranek.

Trees, like all living things, have life spans. By 2015 arborists confirmed the death of Big Pine, which had endured a lengthy pine beetle infestation. Because of its location, the Forest Service categorized the still-standing titan a "hazard tree" and closed the adjoining Big Pine Campground as a safety precaution. The agency subsequently transferred the bronze plaque to the National Museum of American History, where it joins thousands of objects standing as witnesses to the nation's political and environmental history.

This bronze plaque stood before Oregon’s Big Pine from 1989 to 2017. It states: 1787–1987 The National Arborist Association and the International Society of Arboriculture jointly recognize this significant tree in this bicentennial year as having lived he
This bronze plaque stood before Oregon's Big Pine from 1989 to 2017. It states:
1787–1987 The National Arborist Association and the International Society of Arboriculture jointly recognize this significant tree in this bicentennial year as having lived here at the time of the signing of our Constitution. Presented by: Michael Oxman, PNW Chapter, ISA

Forests, if given a chance, continue to grow. In 2011 big-tree hunters—that small cadre of outdoor enthusiasts who seek to discover the largest and oldest trees in the forest—identified another ponderosa pine in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest that was nine feet taller than Big Pine, which had soared to its ultimate height of 259 feet.

Jeffrey K. Stine is the museum's curator for environmental history.