City of Steamboat trying to figure out why cottonwood trees are rotting, falling at Howelsen Hill |

City of Steamboat trying to figure out why cottonwood trees are rotting, falling at Howelsen Hill

A large cottonwood tree fell during a windstorm Aug. 9, crushing a picnic table and taking out a fence at Howelsen Park.
Courtesy/Ernie Jenkins

City officials are thankful the large cottonwood tree that came crashing down Wednesday evening during some gusty winds at Howelsen Hill made its destructive fall at 5 p.m. instead of 6 p.m.

“If it had been an hour later, there would have had been people waiting in the area for the 6:15 softball game,” city parks superintendent Ernie Jenkins said. “We were very fortunate nobody was around.”

The 25- to 30-year-old tree, which was found to have a rotten base, crushed the picnic table and barely missed the dugout of Vanatta Field. The fallen tree also destroyed part of the fencing for the ball field.

Softball games were cancelled for the evening and it took city crews about three hours to remove the tree.

But even after the tree was chopped up and hauled away, city officials were still trying to figure out why so many cottonwoods in the area are rotting and becoming unstable.

Jenkins said it isn’t known what caused the base of the tree to rot, but the problem has affected several other trees in the park this year.

“We’ve lost five cottonwoods in Howelsen Park this summer,” Jenkins said. “Only one fell. We had to remove the other four before they could fall.”

Some of the trees that were removed had died or were leaning enough to prompt worry they might fall.

Jenkins said even after talking to multiple arborists in the area, it’s still not known what is causing the base and roots of the trees to rot.

It’s a mystery Jenkins would like to solve.

He wondered whether heavy snowpack contributes to the issue.

In the wake of what happened last week, the city has been assessing other trees in the area.

City parks workers cut down another large cottonwood tree Tuesday afternoon due to concerns about its potential to fall.

“Cottonwood trees are real unpredictable,” Jenkins said. “They’re a soft wood. They’re very soft rooted and shallow rooted. What we’re finding is when they get big, they get top heavy and they start to lean, and we’re seeing problems with them.”

Jenkins said much of the problems with the cottonwoods come down to the roots.

Part of the issue, Jenkins explained, is that the city’s urban forest is also very different from a natural forest.

The root systems of the trees in the city’s urban forest do not go as deep, so the trees are not as stable.

Not counting open space areas and Emerald Mountain, the city has about 2,500 trees on its parks, properties and medians, Jenkins said.

Cottonwoods are a popular species to grow in city parks because of how quickly they provide shade.

To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210, email or follow him on Twitter @ScottFranz10

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