Group searches for tallest tree

February 10, 2007 11:00 pm
Jedediah Smith State Park is home to the world's tallest coastal Douglas fir. Shown here is a member of that tree species, at Purisima Creek Redwoods Open Space Preserve south of San Francisco. (Photo courtesy National Oceanic & Atmospheric Adminstration.).
Jedediah Smith State Park is home to the world's tallest coastal Douglas fir. Shown here is a member of that tree species, at Purisima Creek Redwoods Open Space Preserve south of San Francisco. (Photo courtesy National Oceanic & Atmospheric Adminstration.).

The Associated Press

For a half century the Oregon Department of Forestry has been charged with finding a measuring Oregon's big trees, a program that keeps track in the state and has turned up 35 national champions.

But with budget restraints, the task has fallen to the Ashland-based National Center for Conservation Science Policy, and Cindy Williams, its big-tree coordinator.

From under a 242-foot-tall Western white pine, believed to be Oregon's tallest, she marveled at the birds it had sheltered and the fawns who had wobbled past it.

Brian Ballou, who once coordinated the tree program for the state, thought of the fires it had survived.

The Ashland center took over late last year and plans to promote the big trees on its Web site, telling people how nominate potential champions and giving GPS locations for those on public land.

"We want to recruit big tree volunteers from around the state," said Williams.

A champ is determined by total points based on trunk circumference, height and average crown spread.

American Forests, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization, has documented the nation's largest known specimens since 1940.

The western white pine Williams and Ballou visited on the Rogue-Siskiyou National Forest was once a national champion.

"Already a large mature tree when the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, the Butte Falls Western White Pine is probably at least 400 years old," reads a sign near the giant.

But it lost its title when a larger one was found in the El Dorado National Forest in California.

The new champ is shorter at 151 feet but has a thicker trunk and broader average crown spread, beating out the Oregon entry on points.

Ballou said he maintained for about six years until 1997.

"I didn't ask for it. It kind of got handed to me," he said of the program.

"The big tree program was always something extra for someone to do," he said.

"But I really took a shine to it. I felt an obligation to respond to nominations as soon as I could."

"Conifers are the big game," he said. "When you see the big coastal Sitka spruce (206 feet tall in Clatsop County) it jumps out at you. It's two or three times bigger than anything else around it."

Big trees also mean bragging rights, he said, noting Oregon's and Washington's governors once got in a friendly rivalry over who had the champion national coastal Douglas fir.

It was settled when the Oregon entry blew down in a windstorm.

The species' champion now resides in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park near Crescent City, Calif., followed by one in Olympic National Park in Washington. Oregon's champion is in Coos Bay.

"There are a relative handful of guys out there who have found and nominated most of the champion trees we have," Ballou said.

They're led by Salem's Maynard Drawson, 81, a retired barber.

"Those big trees are something Oregonians have so much to be proud of, yet know so little about," says Drawson, who has found eight of the Oregon champion trees and some national champions.

Central Point's Frank Callahan has at least 18 champion trees to his credit in Oregon and some in other states.

Mark Corbet, a smokejumper from Redmond, has found more than 10 champions.

But fame can be fleeting, erased by storms, wildfires, disease, old age or bigger trees.