4th-graders touting the scrappy juniper

Students say history backs the underdog
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Correction: A report Friday should have said Jason Benson is the fourth-grade teacher working on a project to designate the Utah juniper as the state tree.

In this corner, the rough, scrappy challenger, the Utah juniper.

And in this corner, hailing from the high mountains, the towering, undisputed state tree of Utah, Picea pungens, the Colorado blue spruce.

It looks to be a showdown for the ages, with the title of the official state tree on the line, as Rep. Jack Draxler pushes legislation to cut the Colorado blue spruce down to size.

Let's get ready to rumble.

Draxler wants to replace the majestic spruce with the scraggly, shrublike juniper, after he was approached by 216 fourth-graders who were puzzled to learn that the state tree of Utah bears the name of its next-door neighbor.

The schoolchildren cast about looking for an alternative before settling on the Utah juniper because of its historical significance. American Indians used the bark for sandals and cradle boards and they made jewelry and sometimes ate the tough berries, which can also be used as a flavoring in gin. Today, juniper wood is used for fence posts all over the state because it resists rotting.

The juniper is believed to be the most common tree in the state, according to A Field Guide To Western Trees.

"I think it will come down to a discussion of whether historical significance or beauty win out. . . . I think the kids have made a pretty darn good case, and how can you turn down 216 fourth graders when they come to you with something" they have worked so hard on, said Draxler, who has a juniper in his back yard.

The classes held a mock legislative session to work their bill, and they plan to visit the Capitol when the measure hits the House floor.

This week, the classes shipped an information packet and DVD to every school in the state, lobbying fourth graders from Box Elder to San Juan to join the cause.

"The kids really jumped on board," said Jason Benson, one of the fourth grade teachers. "They're gung ho about it, and we're excited to see how it happens."

The Legislature made the spruce Utah's state tree in a single day in 1933, after the Utah Federation of Women's Clubs urged lawmakers to adopt the tree before Colorado legislators did the same, which they did in 1939.

Mike Kuhns, a forestry professor at Utah State University, says the juniper might make sense as the state tree because it is scrappy and tough. The spruce is more finicky, needs more water and cooler temperatures.

But, Kuhns said, neither tree is more definitively Utahn.

"I don't want to slam the kids, but there's a little bit of naivety in that they assume that because the name Utah is in the common name of that plant it's more closely allied to Utah because the blue spruce has Colorado in the name," Kuhns said. "The Colorado blue spruce is just as much a Utah native as the Utah juniper." While seemingly innocuous, bids to change the state's official symbols are fraught with peril.

A showdown erupted in 2002 over what to designate as the state vegetable: the sugar beet or the sweet onion. The two sides compromised and went with the onion as the state vegetable and the sugar beet as the state historic vegetable.

And in 1997, the state made the Bonneville cutthroat trout the state fish, but not without a two-year fight with those who favored keeping the rainbow trout.

State symbols

* State animal: The Rocky Mountain elk

* State bird: The California gull

* State cooking pot: The dutch oven

* State fish: The Bonneville cutthroat trout

* State fossil: The allosaurus

* State flower: The sego lily

* State folk dance: The square dance

* State fruit: The cherry

* State gem: The topaz

* State grass: Indian ricegrass

* State insect: The honeybee

* State mineral: Copper

* State motto: Industry

* State rock: Coal

* State hymn: "Utah, We Love Thee"

* State song: "Utah, This Is The Place"

* State star: Dubhe

* State astronomical symbol: The Beehive Cluster

* State tree: The blue spruce

* State historic vegetable: The sugar beet

* State vegetable: The onion

The Colorado blue spruce is just as much a Utah native as the Utah juniper.

- Mike Kuhns, a forestry professor at Utah State University