Arthur Lee Jacobson
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Giants of the Forest;
Olympic Peninsula Big Trees

    This land of breathtaking mountains and rich, green forests, is a paradise to lovers of big trees. For giant trees, the Olympic Peninsula is equaled by few and surpassed by no areas. Only parts of nearby Vancouver Island, as well as Oregon, California and Australia, still have trees over 300 ft tall. To most earthlings a "tall" tree is 75 to 100 ft. Thousands of Douglas firs on the Peninsula don't even branch that near to the ground! Sitka spruces and red cedars stand whose trunks are 20 ft through! The very bark on ancient firs can exceed a foot in thickness.
    About a hundred years ago, pioneers logged the raw, dripping forests, seeking extra-large trees even as we do now. But the motives have altered dramatically. Early loggers took pride in felling the mightiest specimens; we, their descendants, enshrine our record-size trees, admiring with joy the inspiring sight of nature's ultimate growth. Excess fascinates us, whether it be wealth, celebrity, athletic achievement or size.
    So, naturally, we wonder: where are the largest trees? Olympic National Park employees receive so many requests for big tree information that a list of the record trees within the park is kept on file. The State has an ambitious big tree program sponsored by the U.W. Al Carder, a retired professor of plant science who lives north of Victoria has spent years writing a global account of big trees. It is long overdue, therefore, to give credit and recognition to the Peninsula's outstanding trees -- for this is truly the land of the giants.
    Big trees are thought of as just that: so large that we stand in awe of them. Record trees can still be small, however. Because for every kind of tree, including species which normally are small, one example will be the largest recorded or the "champion" for size of that species. For example, the tallest known vine maple is only 62 ft. Big deal? Compared to average vine maples it is amazing. So the 62 ft vine maple is on the big tree list, yet a Douglas fir could be 300 ft tall and 8 ft thick but not qualify for a list of champion trees, since other firs are bigger still! Big tree searchers seek trees with one dimension or another greater than anyone else has reported. Although huge trunks receive most attention, also crucial are lofty heights and broad branch spreads. Mountain hemlock provides a good example: one tree is tallest (194 ft), another broadest (49 ft wide) and a third the stoutest-trunked (17'8" circumference or 5' 7 1⁄2" thick).
    Do you wonder what difference it makes? What use is such data? Certainly people can't get rich measuring trees. Love, however, cares not. To "hunters" of big trees, or their kindred bird-watchers, mushroom-pickers, wildflower enthusiasts, and general outdoors lovers, the reward is in the long hours of pleasure. New discoveries thrill the spirit and give an elevated burst of energy to the body. Finding trees bigger than anyone has found before is a kind of first, like scaling an unclimbed peak or mapping uncharted wilderness. So although no cash bounty is offered, dozens of hikers and tree lovers send to the authorities their tips of record trees.
    Conservation is another compelling motive -- in order to know where the best stands of trees are, we need comparative data, and big tree measurements play an obvious role here. In an effort to save them, we look for the biggest trees.
    Oddly enough, sometimes even the largest trees go long undetected and unpublicized, despite being not far off well-traveled roads. The largest spruce is such a tree. For decades, only the wind roaring in its massive crown carried the news of its greatness. Now its image graces postcards. Its rise from obscurity to fame makes a good story: in August, 1984, I heard about "a huge spruce" on the southeast shore of Quinault Lake, at the Rain Forest Resort. My 50 ft tape measure couldn't circle its mossy trunk, but I guessed it 54 ft circumference and 175 ft tall. In 1986, Randy Stoltmann, author of the Hiking Guide to Big Trees of Southwestern British Columbia, measured it at 52'4" around and 182 ft tall. Next, in June 1987, Dr Al Carder, big tree researcher from Victoria, taped 58'1" but did not measure the height. Still later, Robert Wood, writer of various Olympic Peninsula books, found it 55 ft by his tape. Last, Bob Van Pelt, Washington State Big Tree program director, read 63 ft around and 191 ft tall!
    These measurements, embarrassingly dissimilar, were made independently by men unaware of one another! Who to believe? A November 1987 expedition settled the matter. A group of Oregonians and Washingtonians was itching to know which state really had the biggest spruce. On two successive rainy days, with the same equipment, the group measured the contending giants. The Quinault tree proved to be 191 ft tall, 96 ft wide and 58'11" around. The Oregon tree, south of Seaside, was 206 ft tall, 93 ft wide, and its trunk 56 ft around. These figures are the presently accepted official ones, sanctioned by the State big tree coordinators as well as the American Forestry Association.
Sitka Spruce November 1987

    As a result of the show-down, the giant spruces both got great publicity. Yes, Washington's is a bit bigger, much to the ill humour of our neighbors to the south. Both the spruces had their original tops blown off by storms, so the fact that Oregon's is 15 ft taller is not as important as is the greater trunk and branch spread of the Washington tree. Washington's tallest known spruce, in the Queets Valley near Smith Place, is 305 ft tall, but one on Vancouver Island discovered in June of 1988 is 312 ft tall -- the "Carmanah Giant!" Sitka spruces grow exceedingly fast in the rain forests, with most of the largest specimens only 400-700 years old. It is the State Tree of Alaska and its wood is world-famous for combining strength, elasticity and light weight.
    Most big trees don't have such a contentious history or fanfare. They stand in quiet solitude, sunlight glinting on their trunks, the scent of pines pervading the air -- no other emphasis in the forest. Hikers and wildlife alone are affected by their presence.
    Other big trees are near roads and easy trails, so are seen by many curious onlookers. The Kalaloch red cedar is a prime example. Off Highway 101 north of the big Kalaloch campground, roadside signs proclaim BIG TREE and a special path leads straight to the ancient, hulking remnant. This hollow, rotting red cedar, centuries old, has endured decades of tourists scratching away its reddish bark, trampling its roots, and staring at its ponderous bulk. Harder-to-find cedars are just as big and still more impressive. Cedars have huge buttressed bases, and rot-resistant wood of unexcelled endurance, so they almost never blow down in storms. Despite their high value as a source of fragrant, durable wood, many enormous cedars still stand. Few tall cedars are known, though. The tallest was 277 ft before being logged, but specimens much over 200 ft are rare.
    Douglas firs, of course, are most famous of all. In sheer numbers this is the premier tree in the Northwest, and for that reason and because of the splendid trunks of high-quality wood, it is our local King of the Forest. Douglas firs are the tallest Northwest trees, and always have been, but do not have the monstrously swollen bases of cedars and spruces. The pillar-like, brown, deeply rugged fir trunks rise far higher, as the species can't stand shade. Presently, the tallest tree known in the whole Northwest is a 326 ft fir in the Queets Valley. Well-documented examples around 400 ft once stood, though this is hard for most people to believe. The thickest trunks of firs presently are 44 1⁄2 ft around, which is a mere shadow of the bygone giants' girths and is easily surpassed by numerous spruces and cedars.
    Not all big trees are evergreens, of course, nor centuries old. Cottonwoods easily reach 150 ft in 40 years, and the 188 ft current record (in the Queets campground) may be not much older, if at all. Alas, these trees well deserve the nickname "rottenwood" for their weak, lush wood. They grow as if afraid, in a dreadful hurry, then shatter themselves to pieces in furious storms, old-looking at 75 years!
    Every tree has built-in genetic factors which regulate its performance in a given environment. Yew is slowest of all, but lives for the ages; Grand fir (of tangerine scent) shoots skyward 200 ft in 50 years, but is rarely seen either thick or over 300 years of age; Vine maple is essentially a gigantic shrub, rarely with only one trunk; Hemlocks are a classic case of patient moderation, growing steadily but undramatically; Alder grows as fast as cottonwood but is hopelessly dull in comparison, besides being less imposing in size -- one 136 ft tall by the Hamma Hamma River is only 16 inches thick! Despite being a beanpole, it is a record: the world's tallest reported alder of any kind.
    The Peninsula supports about 30 native tree species, which grow in habitats ranging from rain forest to sunny Sequim. Over 30 Peninsula trees have earned mention on the Washington State Big Tree List, and many others are wonderful to behold even though they are not the biggest. The accompanying chart has a selected list of some of the more important measurements. For your free copy of the State list, write to Robert Van Pelt, College of Forest Resources, AR-10, University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98195.

[The above article above was written in 1990 and published in 1991 in Peninsula magazine. Since then many new tree measurements have been made. I suggest that you consult two books by Robert Van Pelt: Champion Trees of Washington State (1996) and Forest Giants of the Pacific Coast (2001). Both were published by the University of Washington Press.]

Some Olympic Peninsula big trees

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Species Total height Trunk girth Branch spread Year measured Location
Western Red CEDAR 178' 61' 54' 1977 Nolan Creek, S of the Hoh River
Black COTTONWOOD 188' 13'7" 61' 1988 Olympic National Park, Queets Campground
Douglas FIR 326' 21'1" 49' 1988 Olympic National Park, Queets Valley near Smith Place
Douglas FIR 298' 37'4" 64' 1988 Olympic National Park, S Fork Hoh River trail
Douglas FIR 205' 44'5" 37' 1985 Olympic National Park, Kloochmans Rock trail
Grand FIR 264' 14'5" 41' 1988 Olympic National Park, Dosewallips River trail near Station Creek
Grand FIR 217' 19'9" 40' 1987 Olympic National Park, along Barnes Creek by U.S. 100
Mountain HEMLOCK 194' 13'1" 29' 1988 Olympic National Park, near Sundown Pass
Mountain HEMLOCK 149' 17'8" 39' 1988 Olympic National Park, Wynoochee trail
Western HEMLOCK 241' 22'6" 68' 1988 Olympic National Park, Hoh River trail
Western HEMLOCK 164' 27'4" 62' 1972 Olympic National Park, Enchanted Valley
MADRONA 83' 19'10" 95' 1987 Port Angeles, 231 W 8th Street
Bigleaf MAPLE 135' 10'4" 56' 1988 Olympic National Park, S Shore Quinault Road
Bigleaf MAPLE 113' 27'3" 93' 1988 Olympic National Park, Hoh River trail
Sitka SPRUCE 305' 21'11" 62' 1988 Olympic National Park, Queets Valley near Smith Place

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