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The fall of the Dyerville giant.

One of earth's largest creatures, born a thousand years before Columbus, now lies in state to give visitors a new perspective on spectacular trees.

For the residents of Dyerville-a blink-and you'll-miss-it town in California's redwood country-peace and quiet are the norm. But on a calm evening last March, the stillness of a nearby redwood grove was profoundly shattered by the fall of a monarch. In its last moments the Dyerville Giant, our champion coast redwood since 1966, released the energy of centuries of growth as its 500 tons plunged to earth. One local, who heard the impact from half a mile away, thought a train had crashed.

When measured in 1972, the Dyerville Giant stood 362 feet tall and had a circumference of 52 feet four inches and a crown spread of 74 feet. At 1,010 total points, as measured by the American Forestry Association's scoring system, it was second only to the giant sequoia champion. The Dyerville Giant's crown is now in pieces, but the tree's final height has been estimated at about 370 feet, certainly within several feet of having been the tallest tree in the world.

Even for those who saw it when it was still standing, its size is difficult to comprehend. This tree was as tall as a 30-story building, 200 feet taller than Niagara Falls. It weighed more than a loaded 747 Jumbo Jet. If you stand up and look down at a quarter lying on the floor, you will see how small a person lying on the ground would look if you were on top of the once-standing Dyerville Giant.

Two years ago I had to crane my neck to take in the Dyerville Giant's lofty heights. When I visited the behemoth after it fell, I still felt like a Lilliputian next to Gulliver. As I walked along the massive trunk, I couldn't see over it until I was 200 feet from its base.

The domino effect that caused the champ's demise actually began a week earlier, when a venerable redwood standing 50 yards from the Dyerville Giant finally surrendered to gravity. On the way down it glanced off a second 1,000-year-old tree, causing it to lean. One week later, that tree went down, taking the Dyerville Giant with it in a thunderous finale. The assaulting tree's momentum carried it to the ground first, and the champion, as if in revenge, collapsed on top of it.

Considering the fate of most old-growth, the Dyerville Giant was lucky to meet a natural end. Germinating 1,000 years before Columbus, enduring centuries of floods, storms, fires, and earthquakes, it was spared the axe in 1926 by the efforts of the Save the-Redwoods League. The League purchased 9,000 acres of redwood forest with contributions totaling $2 million (equivalent to $300 minion today). Two years later the area was designated as the Humboldt Redwoods State Park. In 1931 the League honored its founding members by naming Founders Grove, a small section of the park that included the Dyerville Giant.

It wasn't until 1966 that Dr. Paul Zinke, professor of forestry at the University of California at Berkeley, recognized the Dyerville Giant for the champion that it was. As part of a long-term redwood ecology project, Zinke needed tree measurements for his studies of redwood "plumbing"-how the trees pump and distribute water and nutrients up a gradient over 350 feet high. Having measured most of the tallest redwoods including the Tall Tree, the previous champion and then tallest tree in the world, he had the data to establish the Dyerville tree as the new champion.

After the tree's demise, Zinke drove up to make measurements and examine the foliage. Surprisingly, he found that the crown had been quite vigorous, growing at a rate of eight inches a year. So, how could a much smaller tree topple the champ?

Park officials said that heavy rains (17 inches in the month the Dyerville champ fell), which saturated and loosened the soil, may have been an important factor. In addition, Zinke noted considerable root rot once the base was exposed. Add to that the normally shallow root system of coast redwoods and the Dyerville Giant's lean, and all you need is the proverbial straw-a nudge from a small neighbor was more than enough.

For Tim Young, supervising ranger for Humboldt Redwoods State Park, it was "almost like a loss in the family. It was a very sad day to see that big beautiful tree down on the ground. "

Reaction in the local papers varied from mystical appreciation to indifference ("It's just a tree"). A few visitors thought it should be cut up for lumber or firewood and made "useful."

"Absolutely not," says Young"We'd like to have it standing, but it's quite impressive on the ground and will continue to be one of the park's main attractions. "

Most visitors agreed. Three weeks after the Dyerville Giant's fall, I sat on a log and listened to the reactions when visitors first saw the prone champion: Just fantastic. Simply awesome!" was the typical response. In fact, the tree attracted more attention in its death than it did when alive. Within two weeks visitation shot up to over 50 times the normal rate. Park officials were interviewed by three TV stations, six radio stations, and over 20 newspapers. Scientists and arborists came to measure, sample, and even collect clippings for cloning.

Genetically, the Dyerville Giant might live on, but its throne is up for grabs. I asked Zinke and officials from redwood national and state parks to suggest possible contenders. The resulting list sounded like a roster for an arboreal all-star team: Stout Tree, Giant Tree, Rockefeller Tree, Arco Giant, Flatiron Tree, Montgomery Giant, Bird's Nest Tree, Founders Tree, and the former champion, Tall Tree.

It is a daunting list since measuring the height of redwoods can be an exercise in frustration, often requiring many hours of patient work. Foresters usually use Abney levels, clinometers, hypsometers, or transits to determine the height. After measuring the distance they are standing from the tree, they wave the magic wand of trigonometry and presto, out comes the tree's height.

What's the theory, anyway. To get an accurate reading, it's generally best to be over two-thirds of the tree's height away from its base. For potential redwood champions, that means about a football field away with a lot of other trees obstructing the view.

Other difficulties include uneven terrain, trees with a lean, and choosing the highest of multiple tops.

To get around these problems, Zinke tried using a weather balloon with a plumb line but found that the line wasn't taut enough. He even thought of using a helicopter to position a laser reflector at the tree's top but feared blowing the tree over with the prop wash. In the end, he had to rely on the tedious surveying methods.

Fortunately for my search, Ron Hildebrant, a postal worker with a background in forestry and surveying, has recently been measuring redwoods for a writer doing a book on the world's tallest trees. Ranger Tim Young showed me Hildebrant's data, and it looked then like the Giant Tree, growing along Bull Creek three miles west of the Dyerville Giant, would now be the biggest by the American Forestry Association's standards. In fact, Hildebrant nominated it only three days after the Dyerville Giant fell.

Then Joe Hardcastle, chief ranger for the Eel River District, told me about Big Tree in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. I called up the park officials there and learned that Big Tree's circumference of 21.6 feet is inflated by a large butt swell. But Carl Knapp, the park's maintenance supervisor, remembered 15 years ago measuring a 250-foot tree on the Irvine Trail with a diameter of 22 feet and no significant taper. A quick calculation gave that one 1,079 points, 63 points higher than the Giant Tree even without the crown spread ! A few days later I went out with Steve Fisher, a maintenance worker at Prairie Creek State Park, to measure the Irvine Trail tree. After a two-mile hike through old-growth redwoods (I kept saying, "That's a big one!"), we came to the tree in question -That's really a big one!"). The height agreed closely with Knapp's memory, but the diameter fell several feet short and overall the tree scored "only" about 950 points. Close, but no champion.

So for now, the Giant Tree wins out after all. As of this writing, Deborah Gangloff, coordinator of AFA's Big Tree Program, hasn't received a nomination to top its 363-foot height, 638inch circumference, and 62-foot crown spread. With 1,016.5 total points, the Giant Tree is the twin of its late predecessor.

On the hike out from the Irvine Trail tree, I was too enthralled with the unique feeling of walking through stately old-growth to be disappointed at not finding the new champion. Besides, most rangers feel that even bigger redwoods-Super Giant Trees-are waiting to be discovered, perhaps in the last groves of unprotected old-growth. I felt grateful to the Save-theRedwoods League and park system for their efforts in the race to preserve those last stands of majestic trees. But on the drive home I wondered how much time was left when I saw three logging trucks rumble by, each carrying a single mammoth log.

As for the Dyerville Giant, even in death it is as important as standing big trees to the health, integrity, and ambiance of old-growth forests. Fallen logs are part of the whole. Carting off the Dyerville Giant from the Founder's Grove would be like removing the Parthenon's fallen columns.

It will take centuries, if not millennia, for the Dyerville Giant to decompose and donate its nutrients to lichens, mosses, sword ferns, lady ferns, redwood sorrel, trillium, salmon berry, tanoak, California laurel, chipmunks, squirrels, deer, porcupines, bobcats, spotted owls, thrushes, wrens, warblers, and future redwood giants. Long may it rot in peace.


As far back as anyone can remember, and then a million years farther back, the range of the redwoods and giant sequoias stretched across most of the northern hemisphere. Today, however, the two ancient species are found only on the West Coast.

The redwood, or coast redwood as it is also known, grows along the Pacific where rain and fog are plentiful. The giant sequoia, needing a drier environment, flourishes at higher elevations.

Sharing a legacy as the largest, as well as among the oldest, life forms in North America, these two noble species can be distinguished from each other by those with a discerning eye. The giant sequoia's deep-green leaves are pointed, scale-like, and overlap one another. The redwood's leaves are bright yellow-green, stand out stiffly from the twigs, and remain on the branches for up to five years-slightly longer than the giant sequoia's leaves.

Distinguishing the trees by their leaves takes sharp eyes since the trunk of the giant sequoia can rise 80 to 225 feet before the first limb appears. Giant sequoias, frequently referred to as "bigtrees, reach heights of 300 to 330 feet, whereas redwoods can grow to 350 feet high. The giant sequoia, however, lives longer. Naturalist John Muir reported one bigtree as having enough growth rings to be at least 4,000 years old.

Because of the vast heights of these two species, the onlooker who wants to know more will have to check the ground-or, rather, the cones that fall there. The bigtree's cones are more than twice as large as the redwood's.

In February and March, the tiny pollen-bearing flowers of the giant sequoia appear and then the seed-producing flowers, which take two seasons to mature into the egg-shaped cones. The giant sequoia relies totally on seeds for reproduction-unlike the redwood, which produces sprouts from its stumps and root collar. Also, its flowers mature into cones in only one season.

The fibrous texture of the redwood's reddish-gray bark sets it apart from the thick, red-brown bark of the giant sequoia. But beware, the textures and coloring inevitably change with age.

The redwood's strong heartwood is heavier and is used commercially more often.

Over the years, the trees have acquired several names that add to the confusion. Causing the most trouble is the fact that the giant sequoia is also known as the "Sierra redwood.' An Austrian botanist further muddied the waters when he gave the trees the genus name Sequoia, honoring the Cherokee chief Sequoyah. After years of debate, however, the giant sequoia's genus name was changed to Sequoiadendron. The change means that the giant sequoia isn't really a sequoia after all.

The species names seem to describe the trees best-sempervirens for the redwood and giganteum for the giant sequoia, meaning "ever-living sequoia" and giant sequoia. " What's most important, these are exactly the qualities that may inspire us to protect the future of two of earth's most venerable species. -TRICIA TAYLOR
COPYRIGHT 1992 American Forests
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Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:The National Register of Big Trees; includes related article; giant redwood tree in Dyerville, California
Author:Bronaugh, Whit
Publication:American Forests
Date:Jan 1, 1992
Previous Article:Joining hands for trees.
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