National champion white spruce remains healthy

This towering national champion white spruce is in excellent condition, just off the pancake-flat Pondicherry Rail Trail in Whitefield. (DAVID GOVATSKI PHOTO)

WHITEFIELD — A white spruce in Pondicherry National Wildlife Refuge remains a National Champion in the Big Tree program.

“This tree is in excellent condition,” reported Dave Govatski of Jefferson, a retired USFS forester who heads up the non-profit Friends of Pondicherry.

The tree is in the first clearing on the right-hand side of the Pondicherry Rail Trail, about 3/10th of a mile from the recently enlarged parking lot.

The white spruce was identified as potentially a champion tree in 2011 and measured by Govatski and then-county forester Sam Stoddard.

In 2019, it became the National Champion.  

Its circumference at breast height (4.5 feet) is 105 inches around, and its height in 2016 was 96 feet. 

“This and other white spruce in the immediate area look as though they were ‘open grown,’ based on their branching pattern,” Govatski explained. “The tree is visible from the Rail Trail about 100 feet away.

“White spruce is one of the most widespread trees in interior Canada,” he continued. “It grows from Alaska and the Yukon to northern New England.

Three kinds of native spruce grow in New Hampshire: black, white and red. Black spruce is typically found in acidic bogs; white spruce grows best on well-drained mineral soils; and red spruce on mountainsides.

“We don’t know the exact age of this particular tree,” Govatski said. “It’s a fast-growing species that — when young — can grow a foot or more a year. I’d estimate its age as around 130 years old, or a seedling around 1890.

“A sign could be put up and possibly a short spur trail cut so that visitors could get a close-up view of this big tree,” he said.

“We have to remember, however, that champions do not stay that way forever. This tree could be blown down in one of our windstorms or struck by lightning or killed by insects or drought. We should enjoy its presence in the meantime.”

The refuge had a national champion black spruce for several years, but it was blown down in the 2017 Halloween windstorm.

The nearly 6,500-acre Pondicherry Refuge is a division of the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge and is managed as a conservation partnership by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Audubon, Fish and Game Department, and N.H. Bureau of Trails.

Designated a National Natural Landmark in 1972 by the National Park Service, Pondicherry is one of the state’s natural treasures that can be enjoyed in any season.

The N.H. Big Tree Program has prepared an online map of some of the state’s biggest trees that can be viewed by the public. It’s available online at

The program was begun 50 years ago in 1970 with the mission of finding, recording and recognizing outstanding individual trees. The program is sponsored by UNH Cooperative Extension, the N.H. Division of Forests and Lands, and the Society for the Protection of N.H. Forests.

Many trail maintenance projects are going forward at the refuge, culminating a summer of activity.

The N.H. Trails Bureau, under the leadership of District 1 Supervisor Clint Savage, began surfacing the Pondicherry Rail Trail the day after Labor Day, Sept. 8. The 4 miles being surfaced with a crush rock material — “ledge-pack” — run from Airport Road to Route 115A in Jefferson. The material is being hauled from the AB Excavating quarry in Lancaster.

Earlier all the old culverts were replaced, and two trailheads and ditch-lines reopened.

Funding for the project was secured in a competitive process from the Federal Highway Administration’s Federal Land Access Program, designed to fund projects on state and county land that will improve access to federal public land.

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