The Tribune spruce is no longer growing properly because its root system is hemmed in by concrete and asphalt, the forester said. And he fears it may blow down in a strong wind.
"But rather than destroy this iconic tree, we can move it to a better place where it can grow," he said, "a place without the tunnel winds of downtown."
Rutherford is seeking public input on where to move the tree. Readers are invited to call his office at 801-972-7818 with suggestions.
A donor has agreed to underwrite the move and taxpayer dollars will not be needed for the transplant. The tree likely will be replanted on city-owned land, however.
The Tribune Christmas tree tradition began in 1945, when each year a big spruce was cut down in Wasatch County and hauled to Main Street with a highway patrol escort, recalled Mike Korologos, who worked at the paper from 1955 to 1979.
The tree was decorated and its lights switched on Friday evening after Thanksgiving in conjunction with the (now-defunct) Santa Claus Parade. An annual contest selected a lucky young Salt Laker to turn on the Tribune Christmas tree lights, Korologos remembered.
Much of the tradition was spurred by the paper's late Publisher Jack Gallivan, who in 1960 launched the planting of a spruce grove at Mountain Dell Golf Course as a source of future Tribune Christmas trees.
Korologos also recalled that on two occasions huge Tribune Christmas trees blew down during the holidays despite being tethered by cables to nearby buildings.
"My biggest fear was that kids would wake up on Christmas morning and see the tree fallen across Main Street," he said. "Once, I was blamed for trying to kill [late Tribune editor] Art Deck when one of the cables gave way as he was walking by."
Gallivan then decided it would be better to plant a Christmas tree, rather than haul in a new one every holiday season. But the first effort failed in 1975, when the tree died.
"We needed to plant it on a mound of dirt to get it off the ground and away from road salt," Korologos said of the effort to grow a tree.
A second spruce planted in 1976 survived. The move is expected to take place in April.
Where to move Tribune Christmas Tree?
Salt Lake City's Urban Forester Bill Rutherford invites the public to offer suggestions by calling his office at 801-972-7818.