Big Tree Hunting in Colorado: A Case for the Numbers

By Leverett, Robert T. | American Forests, Summer 2016 | Go to article overview

Big Tree Hunting in Colorado: A Case for the Numbers


Leverett, Robert T., American Forests


WHAT COMES TO MIND when Colorado is mentioned to lovers of the outdoors? Chances are images of snowcapped peaks will dance in their heads. The high summits of the Colorado Rockies are magnets for climbers and sightseers alike. Elite peak-baggers rank the Centennial State's 53 "fourteeners," comparing elevations and geographical prominence. The extent of their numeric comparisons speaks to the importance they place on exact measures. Numbers rule.

Colorado offers another landscape feature needing description through precise quantification: its treasure of big, tall trees. True, the Rockies do not grow behemoths like those on the West Coast, nor are her forests as varied as the deciduous woodlands of the East, but recent discoveries made by the Native Tree Society (NTS) and American Forests National Cadre of expert tree measurers, both groups with which I have been very closely involved, offer a fresh perspective on Colorado's arboreal offerings.

Tree-hunter enthusiasm is undeniably boosted by numeric comparisons. Paraphrasing what Thoreau scholar and friend Richard Higgins once said to me, "Hard numbers trump soft adjectives." Colorado's cottonwoods reach impressive circumferences, and her blue spruce heights exceed all expectations. Additionally, Englemann spruce and subalpine fir, growing at high altitude, are unpredictably tall, but can we convert these colorful, though inexact, adjectives and adverbs to toughlove numbers? Yes, we can.

DURANGO - GENESIS OF MY CONNECTION

My wife, Monica, and I spend part of our summers in the colorful San Juan country of southwestern Colorado. Initially, I was searching for old-growth forests, and pursuing that mission in 2009, I met Laura Stransky, an old-growth inventory specialist for the U.S. Forest Service. Through Laura an informal connection between NTS and the San Juan National Forest developed. I began exploring the Hermosa Creek Wilderness north of Durango and the forested slopes of scenic Engineer Mountain. In both locations, I confirmed exceptionally tall trees that exceeded the expectations of botanists, foresters and naturalists alike. For example, along the Hermosa Creek Trail, I measured a 160-foot ponderosa pine, a matching 160-foot Douglas-fir only yards away and a 156-foot Colorado blue spruce a short distance uphill. These game changers alerted me to the untapped tree-hunting potential of the vast San Juan region. My story made the Durango Herald, but it wasn't all me. Steve Colburn of Laser Technology Inc. (LTI) participated in some of the early measurements. We employed LTI's most accurate height-measuring device to achieve results to within half a foot.

There were serious opportunities for further discovery, but the job required a team. I needed my NTS companions, living far away. First stepping forward were Don Bertolette (retired, U.S. Forest and National Park Service, living in Alaska), Dr. Lee Frelich (Director of the Center for Forest Ecology, University of Minnesota and NTS Vice President) and Rand Brown (tree hunter extraordinaire from Ohio). In 2010, they joined Laura Stransky and myself in an expanded search.

But, before reporting on our exploits, I should acknowledge that we were certainly not the first to document big trees in the Centennial State. That distinction goes to others, and in particular, the Colorado Tree Coalition, and Neal Bamsberger, Coordinator of Colorado's champion tree program who noted:

"The Colorado Tree Coalition was developed to lead Colorado's efforts to preserve, renew and enhance community forests. Our main focus is education, providing information on proper tree selection, planting and maintenance. In 1995 we achieved 501-c3 status as a nonprofit organization, which is celebrating its 25th silver anniversary in 2016."

The Coalition's champion tree list reveals the extent of their devotion and success. Colorado is in good hands, but as Neal reminded me, their focus is more urban, which leaves vast areas of the state as prime tree-hunting grounds. …

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