Russ Forest, Cass County, Michigan   Don Bragg
  Dec 28, 2006 07:14 PST 


The Fred Russ Forest Experimental Station
( is one of 14 agricultural
experiment stations operated by Michigan State University. Located in
Cass County, Michigan (, in the
southwestern portion of the state not too far from Warren Woods, the
Russ Forest is a mixture of hardwood stands and conifer plantations.
Much of the land is covered by second- and third-growth mesic hardwoods
like American beech, sugar and red maple, white oak, red oaks, black
walnut, ash, hickories, and other assorted hardwoods. Yellow-poplar is
a major component in some stands, especially old fields, but is more
scattered in the more mature stands. Some portions of this forest are
old-growth, although much of the 200-300 year old stands have seen some
cutting, as witnessed by a number of tree stumps. Still, given the
extent of the cutover in this part of the world, this stand still has
considerable ecological value.

Having some time to fill during my vacation, my father-in-law and son
joined me on the 2 hour drive from Ann Arbor to the Russ Forest. The
site was not too difficult to find, and we parked in one of the
designated areas. This spot had a display that immediately drew my
attention--a 16 foot long section of a yellow-poplar log. The sign that
accompanied this log stated that the big tree had fallen in a windstorm
in May of 1984. At that time, it was thought to be over 300 years old
and--get this--at least 225 feet tall!! This was something I needed to
check out...

The Russ Forest has a number of well marked and well used trails. The
older timber (most of which appears to be of presettlement origin) is
not overwhelmingly tall--most of the canopy seems to be 100 to 110 feet

SPECIES             DBH (in.)   HEIGHT (ft.)
Northern red oak      39.6         105.0
White oak             38.6          92.5
Black walnut          33.8          86.5
Black cherry          26.7          98.5
Black walnut          42.3          95.0
American beech        31.2         102.0
Sugar maple           35.1          98.0

You'll notice that all of the heights are to the nearest 0.5 feet. I
recently bought a TruPulse, and this is the stated accuracy of the
height measurements. I can get more specific fractional measurements,
although I cannot guarantee they are more accurate than 0.5 feet, if I
use the slope distance and angle and specifically calculate height with
the sine method. However, the vertical distance function of the
TruPulse uses the sine method to calculate the top or bottom part of the
tree's height. I am comfortable reporting these to the nearest 0.5
feet, especially given the convenience of this feature.

This rather limited sample of decent sized trees was taken from along
the trails, and each species would likely see somewhat taller
individuals, although they would not likely be much taller. The tallest
of the trees on this site were the yellow-poplars:

Yellow-poplar         43.9         121.5
Yellow-poplar         44.1         120.0
Yellow-poplar         38.8         128.0
Yellow-poplar         57.7         134.0

According to signs at the Forest, the 57.7 inch DBH yellow-poplar is the
current Michigan state champion (the Michigan list has a different
tree). I actually measured the diameter of this tree at about 6 feet,
because the bottom third of the tree is completely rotted away. This
old tree (I believe the 300 yr age estimate) has lost many of its
branches to wind and ice over the years, so I think I had a good shot at
the height. The Cass County Park Department's website lists this tree
as "approximately 180 feet tall," which is notably off...

Just down the trail lay the remains of the former champion, the
purported 225 foot giant. While 20+ years have long since decayed away
most of the smaller branches, I was able to ballpark where I thought the
tree had stretched once fallen. I'm not sure why no one apparently
thought to measure this giant when freshly fallen, but it was painfully
obvious this tree, though large, was no where near 225 feet tall. Using
a generous estimate of where the top would have been, I think it was
probably between 130 and 140 feet tall (I measured the horizontal
distance with my laser, and got only 130 feet). This yellow-poplar
apparently had a very wide crown spread, and hence I think had its
height vastly overestimated. Michigan, unfortunately, has had a legacy
of poor height estimates. The current state champion yellow-poplar,
last measured in 1979, is listed at 192 feet tall, with a 133 foot wide
crown spread. I strongly suspect this tree has also been drastically
overestimated in height, and if I get the chance, I will try to measure
it if it still lives.

Don Bragg

Don Bragg, Ph.D.
Research forester
RE: Russ Forest, Cass County, Michigan   Robert Leverett
  Dec 28, 2006 08:24 PST 


   Thanks for the report. The numbers you site are about what I would
have expected. Also, your debunking of the ridiculous heights claimed
for those Michigan poplars is yet another in a long list of commentaries
by ENTS on the height inaccuracies of Michigan's "champion trees". It
just isn't that freakin hard to do the job better. I know of no other
state that perpetuates such exaggerated tree heights. Any thoughts on
why? The era of their past, famous big tree hunter, who seemed to have
mismeasured every single tree he reported, apparently never ended.

RE: Russ Forest, Cass County, Michigan   Don Bragg
  Dec 29, 2006 06:27 PST 


I would guess that the vestiges of their past are still haunting them.
Given how many old champions (20 or more years old) they have on the
books, it seems the whole MI big tree program needs revitalization.
Hopefully, ENTS will someday be influential enough to spur state- and
national-level champion tree lists to revisit any questionable height,
with a full willingness to properly remeasure the tree in question.

Don Bragg