Towering tree on Fetzer ranch has inspired awe for centuries

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COVELO - After 500 years or more, the monumental valley oak in Round Valley has grown into the largest specimen of its kind in the United States.

The Henley tree's base is so big it would take 20 people standing shoulder to shoulder to encircle it.

"It's a magnificent oak specimen," said Steve Sillett, a Humboldt State University tree expert.

Sillett leads a university research team that takes official measurements of the biggest trees around the globe, including the tallest - a towering redwood in Humboldt State Redwood Park.

The 140-foot-tall Covelo tree, as it is also known, has been recognized among a small circle of experts as the nation's champion oak since the 1980s. A recent examination by Sillett confirmed it's still the largest despite the ravages of age and high winds.

The valley oak, which grows only in California, is the largest species of North American oaks. Typically, valley oaks grow to 30 to 75 feet tall and 3 to 7 feet in diameter.

According to the National Register of Big Trees, a list put out by the conservation organization American Forests, the Henley oak is the largest tree of any oak species in the country.

Sillett said the giant may live another century or two, given an almost perfect marriage of soil and climate: "The conditions are ideal."

The tree towers above other valley oaks scattered across a 7,000-acre cattle ranch owned by Sheila and Bobby Fetzer, members of Mendocino County's best-known winemaking family. The tree grows near a restored barn just east of Highway 162 at the southern end of Round Valley in northeastern Mendocino County.

The secluded valley is a spectacularly beautiful place. Snow-covered mountains ring the valley this time of year. It also is home to the state's largest Indian reservation. The valley population of about 3,000 is almost equally divided between the local Indian tribes and white residents.

Historians agree that the big oak was growing when native Yuki Indians freely roamed the valley, living on the generous bounty of the land. Fish and wildlife were abundant then, as were the acorns gathered by American Indians at the giant tree's base.

Shannon Barney, resident deputy sheriff and tribal president of the Round Valley Indian Reservation, speculated that such large oaks then were likely viewed with awe by the native population.

But Barney said the oak's Henley name remains a sad reminder of the valley's dark history after the arrival of the first European settlers in the mid-19th century.

"Because of that, I don't think the tree today is seen as having any significance to the Indian community," Barney said.

Thomas J. Henley, the valley's first superintendent of Indian affairs, allowed settlers to establish farms and ranches despite an earlier federal decision to set aside the entire valley for an Indian reservation. Tensions swiftly rose, leading to bloodshed between the Indians and settlers.

Federal troops were called in to protect the Indians, but eventually they were deployed to round up members of five different tribes from across Northern California and forced them to live together on a much reduced reservation at the valley's northern end.

Some of the settlers, including two Henley sons, swiftly took control of the valley's most fertile lands. The Henleys eventually established a 30,000-acre empire, including the ranch land where the giant tree grows.

Fetzer and his family bought their portion of the former Henley ranch nine years ago. The family reveres the old oak and its history.

"That oak has stood watch over the centuries, signifying the force of nature despite the man-made troubles surrounding it," he said.

If by chance the giant oak dies in their lifetimes, Sheila Fetzer already has a plan.

"We'll give it the biggest funeral this valley has ever seen," she said.

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