Tall tree tale

Ferndale, Calif., claims it, not Coeur d’Alene, boasts the tallest living Christmas tree

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Ed Rintamaki, right, describes his calculations after he and Dwight Greenfield, both surveyors for Meckel Engineering and Surveying, Inc., measured a tree on Duane Hagadone's property that has been tagged the largest living animated Christmas tree in the world and is part of the Coeur d'Alene's annual Holiday Light Show. The measurement was in response to the Victorian village of Ferndale, California's claim of having the tallest Christmas tree.

COEUR d'ALENE - In the blue corner is Ferndale, a preserved Victorian village on the northern coast of California coming in with a population of 1,382 people.

In the red corner is Coeur d'Alene, 46,000 people strong sitting on the shores of the North Idaho lake that shares its name.

The referee for the bout is, well, we don't have one.

But make no mistake, sooner or later it's gonna be time to get it on.

Ferndale says it has the tallest living Christmas tree, and it wants the belt from Coeur d'Alene, the recognized No. 1. Ferndale isn't staying quiet, either. They're calling Coeur d'Alene a paper champ.

"We'll go head to head with you, we're not afraid," said Tom Ford, volunteer Ferndale firefighter, who this month measured

Ferndale's famous Sitka spruce, one he boasts is healthy and still growing. "It's a big-ass tree."

The town's chamber of commerce is backing the boast. The 162.5-foot measurement is solid, it says.

"It was accurate," said Karen Pingitore, Ferndale Chamber of Commerce director. "So there you have it."

The Coeur d'Alene Resort has been billed as having the tallest living Christmas tree - 162 feet tall - for five years. It's been celebrated in a number of magazines and media promos, such as Good Morning America, during its run. But the Lake City may have a fight on its hands. Turns out, the original 162-foot grand has since died.

The tallest living title has been transferred to sister trees who grew up in the same clump since then. In fact, due to rash of deaths, four trees have been used in five years. Even the 2010 tree was that tree's first year wearing the lights.

And during the transfers, things have shrunk.

Miffed that Ferndale started its smack talk, the Hagadone Corporation, which owns the Resort, sent out surveyors Ed Rintamaki and Dwight Greenfield to record its height. Using a total station surveyor - an electronic transit with a distance meter that reads slope distances to a particular point - they measured 144.5 sans the star.

Case closed?

Not quite.

Coeur d'Alene isn't rolling over.

"Apples to apples," said John Eloe, Hagadone Corporation director of facilities, on hand at the measuring, and who says the only true way to tell is to get the same surveyor with the same instrument at both trees, not just one town saying so. "Otherwise, they're full of hooey."

Ladies and gentlemen, your main event.

But there's a lot of gray area how it got here - and what number is what.

In December 2010, the publication Travel and Leisure put out a list ranking the tallest living trees. Google "tallest, living Christmas tree" now, and Ferndale's famous tree pops up in top-10 rankings as the silver medalist at 150 feet, 11 feet shorter than Coeur d'Alene's (listed as 161 and growing).

That bothered Ferndale.

Irked, it how Pingitore put it.

Locals there have always said their century-old tree, located at the end of Main Street in the town that neighbors Redwood country, is around 165 feet tall. In fact, on their chamber web page, it claims the town does have the tallest living Christmas tree. It doesn't say how tall, but around 10 years ago, a retired math professor there used a Sexton land surveyor and measured it at about 161 feet, Pingitore said.

The tree's been growing since then, she said. She doesn't know, however, how that 150-foot figure got out in the first place. When Travel and Leisure called, it only asked for a photo of the illuminated tree with its roughly 900 lights.

"Had they asked I would have told them approximately 165 feet," she said.

Nevertheless, the ranking came out, and it helped prompt the fire department to measure the tree when it was taking down the lights a few weeks ago.

Ford's measurement wasn't electronic, however. Not that that is necessarily a bad thing. The volunteer firefighter dropped a stringed plumb-bob from the top of the lights, 122 feet up, then climbed the remainder to the top, measured that, and added the two.

That's still not that, though.

And here's where it gets sticky.

That allegedly record-breaking reading caught the eye of arborist, landscape engineer and tree-measuring junkie Mario Vaden of Portland, Ore.

Vaden had measured Ferndale's Sitka spruce himself in December out of curiosity while traveling to nearby Eureka. He used a $700 laser rangefinder - an electronic device popular in the tree-measuring field that finds heights and distances with calculations based on angles and distance - and said he clocked 151.26 feet. He didn't think anything special of the reading, he said, since 150 feet had been the going number - at least outside of Ferndale.

A month later, 162.5 showed up. Vaden noticed that 162 had been the going record, and wondered about the new reading that would have take the title by half a foot.

"It's so odd that their measurement is so off from the one I got," he said, "but just happens to be half a foot taller than the tallest recording for the record?"

Like any good scrap, a little pre-fight back and forth heats it up.

Each side stands by their method. Ferndale calls Vaden's tool "unofficial," and Coeur d'Alene surveyor Rintamaki said the California fireman's two sets of math "isn't as accurate."

Some, in good spirit, a little below the belt.

"Miraculously grown taller," said Jerry Jaeger, Hagadone Hospitality president. "Jack and the Beanstalk could not have done better. Is organic fertilizer a part of the story?"

There were a few jabs at the 900 lights Ferndale uses compared to the 40,000 for Coeur d'Alene's tree.

But a height is a height, and it would be disappointing should Coeur d'Alene lose the belt.

"Very disappointing," Jaeger said.

Meanwhile, Coeur d'Alene had originally estimated its 2010 Christmas tree at 155 feet. Had that number stuck, it would have still bested Ferndale's 150 - had that number stuck. Coeur d'Alene called the 2010 tree the "world's tallest animated Christmas tree" - the "animated" part a nod to the blinking, flashing lights that dance.

But what's at stake now are bragging rights, and the feather in the tourism and hometown pride cap.

What's needed is one surveyor, one instrument and one round.

Neither side says it's scared, but neither side is budging.

"If someone wants to get an impartial measurement I'm all for it," Ford said. "We'll keep claiming it until someone proves us otherwise."

Enter a ref.

Vaden's offered to do it, if expenses are covered.

He said he could even try to recruit forester Michael Taylor to help with the job. Taylor's a leading discoverer of champion and tallest trees, and in 2006, he co-discovered the tallest known tree in the world, a coast redwood now named "Hyperion," about which National Geographic made a video.

Taylor heard about the dispute from Vaden.

"I told (Taylor) wouldn't it be funny if we got involved," Vaden said. "It would be a blast to come out and measure it, and put an end to this."

Taylor e-mailed The Press and said he had a laser "that can measure to plus or minus 1 inch accuracy," but couldn't be reached for further comment Friday.

Until then, fighters, take to your corners.

Wait for the bell, and come out swinging.

The town of Ferndale, Calif., claims its Sitka spruce tree is 162.5 feet tall, the tallest living Christmas tree in America.

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