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State cancels champion tree contest
Arbor Day honor felled by budget cuts
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Gainesville’s annual Arbor Day celebration will go on as usual this Friday, but one element of the program will be conspicuously absent.

No one will announce the winners of the Hall County Champion Tree contest, because state budget cutbacks forced the Georgia Forestry Commission to cancel the competition this year.

"It’s very disappointing. But we didn’t have the money to go out and measure the trees," said Phillip Anderson, a ranger with the agency’s Hall County office.

The Champion Tree program honors the county’s largest known specimen of each local tree species. The list typically comprises more than 100 species and includes about half a dozen state champions and a couple of national champions.

Most of the trees are discovered and nominated by members of the public. A Georgia Forestry representative then has to visit each site and measure the tree’s dimensions: crown spread, height and trunk diameter.

"We usually get 20 to 40 nominations, sometimes more than that," said Anderson. "It can eat up some fuel, driving around to all those places."

Ken Masten, forester for the agency’s 20-county Gainesville district, said the agency has set a goal of cutting fuel usage by 15 percent.

"We’re trying to make sure we can continue to provide our core services," he said. "We have to have enough fuel to run to fires."

The agency helps fight wildfires on state and private lands. It also assists landowners with forest health issues, such as managing insect infestations.

Masten said the busiest season for wildfires is from January until the end of April, when the trees leaf out.

"This is the period when we have our biggest expenditures," he said. "We’re trying to meet all of our obligations."

Dan Gary, Georgia Forestry’s administrative director, spent Wednesday in state budget meetings at the Capitol, where the atmosphere was grim.

"The governor has recommended a 14.5 percent cut this year," he said. "Our current budget is $39 million, and we’re looking at having to cut about $6 million."

Gary said the agency has already been conserving resources because everyone knew there would be budget cuts, but they didn’t think it would be this drastic.

"It’s going to hurt us a lot," he said. "Our biggest concern is that we won’t be able to offer the same level of fire protection."

Under the circumstances, nonessential programs such as Champion Tree had to be set aside. But Masten said it will be revived when the economy improves.

"I think Hall County’s Champion Tree program is one of the finest in the state, and I sure don’t want anyone to think that it’s gone," he said.

Some might argue that it makes no difference which trees in the county are the biggest. But Masten said the program serves a purpose.

"It’s educational and fosters community pride," he said. "It helps people notice and appreciate trees."

There will be plenty of tree appreciation Friday at the Arbor Day ceremony, scheduled for 10 a.m. at Featherbone Communiversity. Keep Hall Beautiful and the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce will partner with Georgia Forestry to present the program, where the winners of the Arbor Day poster contest and the recipients of tree replacement grants will be named.

Rick Foote, natural resources coordinator for Hall County, said the grant program has not been affected by the economy. "We raised $5,000 at last year’s Spring Chicken Festival, and it all goes to the tree replacement fund," he said.