The Bennett Juniper in the Stanislaus National Forest in Tuolumne County is thought to be the oldest juniper tree in the United States. The tree is known to be over 3,000 years old, with some believing it could even be 6,000 years old. Now, it has a new organization watching over it.
Save the Redwoods League announced that it has entrusted Mother Lode Land Trust (MLLT) with the long-term stewardship of Bennett Juniper. The League donated the 3,000-year-old tree and surrounding 3-acre property to MLLT. The Bennett Juniper property has been stewarded by the League since 1987.
“When Save the Redwoods League protects a forest, often, that’s just the beginning of the story, not the end,” said Anthony Castaños, land stewardship manager for Save the Redwoods League. “After more than 30 years of stewarding the Bennett Juniper property, we’re pleased to convey this remarkable place to Mother Lode Land Trust. The organization has the capacity and local ties to ensure its future most readily.”
Not only is Bennett the oldest juniper tree in America, it’s also the largest, sitting 78-feet-tall with an average crown spread of 56 feet. It sits in the Sardine Meadow at roughly 8,400 feet elevation, which is covered in snow most of the year. The tree doesn’t get a lot of visitors during the years since it’s on private property and protected by the Save the Redwoods League.
“The Bennett Juniper is an unrivaled specimen of western juniper. This gnarled and knotted tree has withstood drought, hard winters and lightning strikes for thousands of years,” said Ellie Routt, executive director of Mother Lode Land Trust. “MLLT’s ownership of this property ensures local oversight and permanent protection so that everyone can have the chance to see this amazing tree.”
Although we know it’s the oldest juniper tree in the U.S., its age remains a debate. It was first cored in the 1930’s where it was estimated to be roughly 3,000-years-old. It was again cored in 1989 by Peter Brown of the University of Arizone, where he counted an age of nearly 3,000. But during Brown’s coring, he found that the tree suffered from rot on the inside and was hollow about 2-feet-deep on its trunk, so the exact age will never be known.
The tree is named after naturalist Clarence Bennett, who studied western juniper trees from Oregon to Mexico. In 1932, after hearing of Bennett’s studies, Ed Burgeson, a local sheep rancher, led Bennett to the large juniper tree. It turned out to be the largest juniper that Bennett had encountered. For years thereafter, Bennett continued to advocate for the tree’s protection, and in the 1950s the USDA Forest Service named the tree after Bennett.
Other large juniper trees can also be found on the property, including a pair that looks like they’re dancing, according to locals. These trees are nicknamed Fred and Ginger for their resemblance to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
Ensuring the Protection of the Bennett Juniper
Nonprofit organizations have stewarded the Bennett Juniper property for more than 40 years as protected open space.
To establish formal protections for the famed tree, Joseph W. Martin, Sr. donated the 3-acre Bennett Juniper property to The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in 1978. By the 1980s, increased visitation had significantly degraded the property. TNC restored and stewarded the land for about nine years before they conveyed it to Save the Redwoods League in June 1987.
Although the League is best known for protecting coast redwood and giant sequoia forests, it took on the responsibility of managing the Bennett Juniper property for 35 years. The League’s stewardship team installed protective fencing around the Bennett Juniper’s base and the boundary of the property. It has also installed interpretive panels to provide information and background about the tree and its history. Notably, the League hired Ken Brunges as caretaker in 1988. Brunges lived onsite and diligently protected the Bennett Juniper for three decades.
After Brunges’ exit, and with careful consideration and discussion between the nonprofit organizations, the League determined that MLLT, a more localized organization, would be best suited to manage the property going forward. Effective November 4, 2022, the League has donated the property, along with $40,000 in seed funding toward its long-term stewardship, to the Mother Lode Land Trust, continuing the legacy of nonprofit stewardship for this remarkable specimen.Save the Redwoods League Donates One of the Oldest Trees in the World, Bennett Juniper, to Mother Lode Land Trust