CONNELL, Wash. – The Connell National Forest’s tale is bigger than the single tree growing on the southbound side of Highway 395.
Regina Grassl and Carol Lindner are adding a new chapter as they attempt to resurrect the road side attraction near milepost 51.
The tree, jokingly called Connell National Forest, was one of those stories people tell each other.
Grassl and Lindner, both in their 70s, mourned the loss of the forest and would talk about how they would like to bring it back.
“We started looking for a tree about two years ago,” Grassl said. “We just wanted a forest again.”
The “forest” started with a branch that farmer Ron Loeber found jammed in his combine in 1974. The dryland farmer yanked it out, tossed it to the side and continued his work.
That branch became a tree more than 15 feet tall. Someone hung a sign on it, proclaiming it to be the “Connell National Forest.”
Tragedy struck in June 1999 when two young men grabbed a chain saw and, on a lark, clear-cut the forest. The tumult from the community drew reporters from throughout the region.
The young men were fined $100 and required to serve 40 hours of community service for their deed.
A Franklin County sheriff’s deputy talked a local nursery into donating a maple tree to replace it. A group of volunteer firefighters planted it.
While members of the fire department watered the new tree for the first year, it was forgotten and died of neglect.
There were reports that the original elm had sent out shoots, but Grassl said a set of fires wiped those away.
So when Grassl and Lindner decided to bring the forest back, they didn’t want just any tree.
They needed a survivor.
They found it in a strange place – growing behind the Burger Factory II. It was a Chinese Elm sapling, growing in an oak barrel, roots protruding through the slats.
The two women, who dubbed themselves the forest’s park rangers, picked up the tree. They just needed a place to plant it.
They found a spot of private land where the owner was willing to let them put the tree, and with the help of Grassl’s upstairs neighbor, “Junior Ranger” Alex Martinez, they revived the national forest.
Around this time, the pair recruited another member to their park staff, a Finley woman who was able to fashion a Smokey Bear to stand guard over the tree.
The final touches are a couple of signs Grassl picked up from a hardware store with a simple message: