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Student-advocated state tree bill signed into law

Published: Wednesday, March 26 2014 3:50 p.m. MDT

The quaking aspen was signed into law as Utah's state tree on Wednesday during a ceremonial event at Monroe Elementary School.

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MONROE, Sevier County — Step aside, Colorado blue spruce. Utah has a new state tree.

Gov. Gary Herbert joined students at Monroe Elementary School on Wednesday to sign SB41, which designates the quaking aspen as the state's arboreal symbol.

The event marked the end of an effort that began last year when fourth-grade students from Monroe Elementary appealed to the governor during a visit to Sevier County that the aspen — not the spruce — represents the state's forests.

That conversation led to the drafting of SB41, which was sponsored by Monroe Elementary alumnus Sen. Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe.

"It’s just wonderful to see our young people getting involved," Herbert said after the bill signing. "I come away very excited about the future of Utah by having spent some time here in Monroe Elementary."

SB41 was approved relatively quickly by lawmakers during the 2014 Legislature, clearing the Senate unanimously and then securing a 54-19 vote in the House.

During debate on the bill, Okerlund and House sponsor Rep. Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, argued that the aspen can be found in most regions of the state and makes up 10 percent of Utah's forest cover, compared with the 1 percent of the blue spruce.

The Pando aspen grove in central Utah is also considered to be among the Earth's largest and oldest living organisms.

Okerlund said it makes sense for Utah's symbolic tree not to be named after a neighboring state. He said some Utahns may not be thrilled about aspen groves spreading through their property, but the aspen is an important component of the state's bioculture.

"The blue spruce, even if you don’t put the ‘Colorado’ in it, is the state tree for three or four other states, and nobody has chosen the aspen," Okerlund said. "The aspen tree really is a wild tree meant to be grown in our forests, and it really does represent Utah very well."

Students from Monroe Elementary were an active presence on Capitol Hill during the legislative session, appearing at committee hearings for the bill and watching from the gallery as lawmakers voted on SB41.

Fourth-grader Kaizlee Bringhurst said it was exciting to visit the Capitol and be involved in the process of creating new laws.

"We don’t get the chance to meet the governor every day," she said.

Monroe Elementary Principal Ted Chappell said it's thrilling to see his students not only learning about the legislative process but also taking an active role in helping a bill become a law.

"It’s actually very satisfying," Chappell said. "I think it’s great that these students can see they can make a change."

Okerlund said SB41 was the "most fun of any bill" he has sponsored during his career in the Utah Senate. He said it was historic not only for the residents of Monroe, but also to all students in the state who now have evidence they can be catalysts for change.

"It’s been very gratifying, not only from the standpoint of getting the bill done and getting the tree change done, but to have our kids here locally be a part of it," he said. "These kids will remember this their entire lives, and they’ll know they were a part of the process."

On the students' winning streak, Chappell said, his students are "one-for-one" passing bills, but he doesn't know if students will try their hand at legislation again next year.

"We don't have any (bills) in the plans yet," he said.

Contributing: Stace Hall

Email: benwood@deseretnews.com

Twitter: bjaminwood

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