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"Where are the big trees?" the passing hiker asked. We were about 4 miles up the Caldwell Fork Trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park en route to the national champion northern red oak. All along the way my guide, big tree hunter and arborist Will Blozan, had been pointing out trees with statistics that would be the envy of nearly every forest tree east of the Pacific Northwest. Will looked at the hiker as if he had asked him where the sky was. "Everywhere," Blozan replied. Talk about not seeing the forest for the trees!

Unfortunately, the hiker's question would have been all too appropriate for 99 percent of America's forests. In that case, the answer would have been, "Long gone." That's why, when Joseph Stearns challenged us 60 years ago to seek out and protect our largest tree specimens, thus inspiring AMERICAN FORESTS' Big Tree program, he was referring primarily to "the giants scattered throughout our remaining virgin forest stands."

A few big trees, like the champion Pacific yew and a co-champion western redcedar, were saved when the surrounding old-growth was leveled and hauled away. That's like saving one page from a whole library. Fortunately, we still have a few "books" left, scattered around the country. But their scarcity--combined with a big tree formula that tends to favor open-grown deciduous trees--means that champion trees in old-growth are precious and rare finds. So without detracting from our beautiful big yard, farm, and city street trees, let this brief survey of old-growth champions inspire you to meet Stearns' original challenge.

One area where that challenge has largely been met is the West Coast. Big tree hunter Robert Van Pelt says most champion conifers there can be found in the region's remaining 2 percent of old-growth forest. The Olympic Mountains, perhaps the crown jewel of American old-growth, have eight national champions, all conifers, including the 804-point coast Douglas-fir, 922-point sitka spruce, and 931-point western red-cedar. These giants have only the redwoods and sequolas to look up to. The Olympics are also home to the biggest western hemlock, subalpine and Pacific silver fir, Alaska-cedar, and Englemana spruce.

Other western old-growth areas with champions include the Washington Cascades (noble fir, western and subalpine larch), the redwood parks (grand fir and coast redwood), the national parks of the Sierras (California white and red firs and giant sequoia), and wilderness areas in the Siskiyou Mountains (ponderosa pine and incense-cedar). Meeting any of these champions, or just walking among their old growth neighbors, is a humbling experience. These trees put us in our place. We are forced to confront our myopic and abridged view of the natural world and give these elders the respect they deserve.

The big trees of eastern old-growth are no less inspiring, if viewed in context; but only recently have we begun to document them, much less appreciate them. According to Mary Davis and Robert Leverett of the Eastern Old-growth Forest Information Clearinghouse, less than 0.5 percent of original forest east of the Great Plains still stands. Although this is about 2 million acres, much of it--especially in northern Minnesota and Michigan and the Ozarks--has been stunted somewhat by less than ideal growing conditions.

"Habitat plays the biggest role for growing champion trees," Leverett says, "but the best forest habitats for many species are gone." Leverett, who probably has measured more trees in the East than anyone else, believes the Southern Appalachians are likely the true home of the biggest eastern hemlocks. But we may never know where most other species would grow the biggest, and how big that is.

However, largely through Will Blozan's efforts, we now know much potential still exists for discovering champion trees in eastern old-growth. Blozan has had a hand in nominating 16 of 18 current national champions found in the virgin coves of the Smoky Mountains. The biggest eastern hemlock is an impressive 17 feet around and 165 feet tall. But it's the deciduous trees that really surprise. The champion yellow buckeye, black cherry, and chestnut oak are all a few inches thicker and only 20 feet to 30 feet shorter than the hemlock. The red maple tops out at 141 feet with a girth of 23 feet. With its shaggy bark, huge bole, and thick coat of moss, it bears no resemblance to the red maples most of us know. And remember, these monarchs are surrounded by many princes only a few points shy of seizing the throne.

Outside the ancient Southern Appalachian groves, big tree hunters agree that Congaree Swamp National Monument in South Carolina has the most potential for record trees in eastern old-growth. In fact, at 130 feet to 160 feet, the deciduous forest there could be the tallest in the East. Currently a water hickory, possumhaw, and two common persimmon co-champions call it home. The other champions of old-growth are more scattered. The new 363-point eastern white pine champion was discovered in the old-growth of the Porcupine Mountains of Upper Michigan. A co-champion common persimmon and the biggest pumpkin ash live in the 160-acre old-growth bottomland forest of Big Oak Thee State Park in southeastern Missouri. The biggest Shumard oak graces a 175-acre uncut forest in, of all places, downtown Memphis.

On our hike in the old-growth of the Smokies I had to keep reminding myself that the northern red oak Blozan showed me was (A) not on the West Coast and (B) not a conifer. On hikes in the old-growth forests of the Olympics I have wondered if I was still on planet earth. The biggest trees in these last surviving pockets of old-growth are champions in the way Mother Nature, and Joseph Stearns, intended them to be: towering, massive, ancient, and living in a forest of peers. Let's find more.

Photojournalist Whit Bronaugh travels far and wide to capture the essence of America's biggest and most impressive trees.
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Publication:American Forests
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2000
Previous Article:A STARS Star ATTRACTION.

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