Big changes for big trees: deaths, growth spurts, and a new list-altering rule. It's our biennial check on the state of our nation's biggest trees.
One hundred champs this year were casualties of the new rule, all trees not remeasured since 1998. The demise of many more now-former champs became known only because nominators and state big tree coordinators were motivated by the new rule to find and remeasure them. This has resulted in the biggest set of changes ever in the 68-year history of the Big Tree program.
For example: In this Register you will not find 358 of the 873 champs and co-champs that reigned in 2006, a turnover of 41 percent.
While the 10-year rule has purged the Register of monarchs that have been resting on laurels from long ago, it has also spurred a search that resulted in 219 new monarchs, almost double the number of new champs from 2006. The net result--a total of 733 champs and co-champs representing 636 species and varieties--is a 16 percent drop.
Still, the 2008 Register honors a select group of trees of formidable dimensions. Stack them on top of one another and they soar more than 9 miles high. Add the area of their trunk cross sections and make a circular trunk 136 feet in diameter. Their combined crowns would shade 46 acres, the equivalent of 35 football fields! Line up those same crowns, leaf to leaf, and they would form a line nearly 7 miles long.
One thing not affected by the new 10-year rule: megatrees (trees scoring more than 650 points). In fact, the flurry of remeasuring caused several to improve their standings. The giant sequoia, coast redwood, western redcedar, Sitka spruce, and coast Douglas-fir all retained their positions in the top five. But a growth of 70 inches in girth for the Port-Orford-cedar moved it from eighth to sixth place overall, nudging it ahead of the common baldcypress and bluegum eucalyptus.
Otherwise, the list of megatrees stayed the same except that the newly remeasured bigleaf maple grew 116 points, allowing it to join the megatree club. Its 659 points ties it with the champion sugar pine for 11th biggest honors. The trunk of the biggest bigleaf maple, which stands by a country road near Jewel, Oregon, is nearly three feet thicker than it was in 1995.
Other remeasured champions have also shown impressive growth. In 1986, when the champion short-leaf fig of Lignumvitae Key, Florida, was last measured, it ranked as the 183rd biggest champion tree with 303 points and a diameter of 6.5 feet. This year it leapt to number 31 after a gain of 208 points, mostly from an increase in diameter of more than 5 feet. The fastest growth spurt by a big champion was made by a black walnut that has been taking advantage of the Oregon weather, far from its native range in the East. It moved up from number 62 to 16, gained 143 points, and increased its diameter from 7.3 to 11.6 feet in the last 16 years. That's an average increase in trunk thickness of 3.2 inches per year.
In the competition among states for most champs within its borders, Florida has long held a commanding lead. The Sunshine State has been bolstered by its having so many subtropical species not found in any other state. But in the last two years Florida lost 91 champs while adding only 17, thereby reducing its tally from 160 to 86. Three quarters of the losses were deaths, most of which were discovered in the attempt to remeasure them for the 10-year rule. Meanwhile, Arizona, which was number three, had the biggest net gain of 12 champs, which gave it a total of 94 and moved it ahead of Florida to first place. California had a net loss of 19 champs--15 from the 10-year rule--and dropped from second to third place.
The 10-year rule was also the reason for 20 of the 22 titles lost in Oregon and 25 of the 39 Michigan lost. Likewise, Hawaii lost all six of its titles and Rhode Island its only one. All these states went into the nominating process with a high proportion of champions whose measurements were more than 10 years old. But longtime big tree hunters Byron Carmean and Gary Williamson showed that that was no excuse. Their 18 new champions, plus a lot of remeasuring, gave Virginia a net gain of one, in spite of the fact that 38 old titles had been threatened by the 10-year rule.
This year's crop of 219 new champions is distributed among 32 states. Virginia had the most with 37, followed by Arizona (26), Texas (21), Georgia (18), and Florida (17). Three states without a champ in 2006 returned to the Register this year. Massachusetts claimed the biggest sugar maple with a 368-point specimen in Charlemont. Not to be left behind, Arkansas now boasts the biggest common persimmon (265 points) and the biggest shortleaf pine (261 points).
But the standout was Kansas where seven different nominators located the biggest paper birch, narrowleaf cottonwood, Washington hawthorn, dwarf chinkapin oak, western soapberry, little walnut, and two co-champion oriental arborvitae. Delaware, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Wyoming remain champ-less, joined this year by Hawaii and Rhode Island.
This year's new champions range from the 27-point Geyer willow on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation in Arizona to the 577-point sycamore in Ashland, Ohio. Five other rookies scored in the 500-point range: a northern California walnut and ponderosa pine in California, an eastern cottonwood in Wisconsin, a water tupelo in Virginia, and a black cottonwood in Washington, which unseated an Oregon tree that had held the title since 1982.
Ohioans are mourning the loss of their state tree, the Ohio buckeye, to Illinois. The new champ (see American Forests, Autumn 2007) stands on the campus of McDonald's Hamburger U. Happy Meals for all!
And in an intra-state slugfest, the new northern California walnut in El Dorado County beat the Napa Valley champion, which had reigned since 1986, by a whopping 160 points.
Of the 358 dead or dethroned champs, the biggest loss was the 856-point Sitka spruce of Klootchy Creek, Oregon (see magazine, p.18). With its own park, this former co-champ was considered Oegon's biggest, and possibly oldest, tree, with an estimated age of 700 years. It lost its crown, literally, and much of its trunk, to 100-mile-an-hour winds early last December. Hurricanes and other storms, disease, and other natural causes have claimed the lives of 141 now-former champions. After the Sitka spruce, the next biggest tree to succumb was the 563-point eastern cottonwood of Seward, Nebraska, which had ranked as the 18th largest but came down in a storm.
The champ check-up revealed 10 dead title-holders in the 400-point range: cherrybark and water oak; Rocky Mountain Douglas-fir; white and weeping willow; whitebark, foxtail, and Washoe pine; and two American elm co-champions.
Some champions had been on the Register a long time when they were discovered dead by people hoping to update their measurements for the 10-year rule. Who knows when these trees actually went to that great forest in the sky? The fallen 340-point northern white-cedar of Leelanau County, Michigan, had reigned since 1953, A 285-point Atlantic white-cedar in Brewton, Alabama, was first nominated in 1961, and a 274-point loblolly-bay in Ocala National Forest, Florida, had been on AMERICAN FORESTS' record books since 1963.
Normally, the majority of champions knocked off the elite list lose their figurative crowns only when they lose the point game. This time just 80--22 percent--of the dethroned royals were eliminated by bigger trees. There were five trees disqualified for being a shrub (less than 13 feet tall or three inches in diameter), and another 13 for not being the species the nominator thought they were. But the other 260 former champs were knocked off their thrones or found to be dead because of the 10-year rule.
Although the changes are rather dramatic this year, the new rule has greatly improved the accuracy and currency of the Register. The turnover will be lessened in future Registers because only trees last measured 10-12 years earlier will be affected, rather than the clean-up that occurred this time from 1998 all the way back to 1953.
Yes, there were a lot of losers this year, but that only creates more opportunities for winners in the 2010 Register. With 189 trees on the empty throne list, there hasn't been this many chances to get your name in the record books since 1988, the last time so many trees were without champions. So grab your field guide and measuring tape and head out to the back yard or the back of beyond. Could be that somewhere out there is a would-be monarch with your name on it.
Whit Bronaugh nominated the three co-champ Santa Cruz cypress trees on the current Register.
Story and photos by Whit Bronaugh
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|Date:||Mar 22, 2008|
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