Looking Back   Robert Leverett
  Jan 21, 2004 09:39 PST 


     On occasion I like to look back and review the course we've taken
in ENTS over the past several years. Such trips through time help me to
keep perspective on our priorities and progress and sense if we're
really making a difference. Sometimes it is fun to go back all the way
to the pre-ENTS environment and contemplate the then state of our
knowledge about the East's biggest trees, historically and current day,
and observe how our perceptions have changed. Have we made progress in
ranking the species?

     Back in 1995, Will Blozan, Jack Sobon, and I set out to write book.
We researched the available material on eastern big tree sites and
individual species such as the white pine, tulip tree, American
sycamore, baldcypress, etc. We wanted to set the record straight about
the giants of yesteryear. We also wanted to describe methods by which an
interested person could accurately measure tree dimensions. We were on a
holy crusade to clean up the champion tree registers, principally the
National Register of Big Trees. The book, published in 1997, was
entitled "Stalking the Forest Monarchs - A Guide to Measuring Champion
Trees". It had some groundbreaking material, but we weren't able to
produce enough copies, so all that is left today are a few archive
copeis. However, we plan to revise the book as an ENTS-wide project. We
have wanted to get started, but ironically our successes in ENTS over
the past 3 or 4 years have made the revision a sizable undertaking. Lots
of discoveries have been made and lots of data have been collected that
beg for inclusion. I can easily see twice the amount of material and a
lot more sophisticated treatment of many subjects.

    However, new material not withstanding, Will Blozan and I can be
pleased at how much information that first book has in it. We used the
first edition to recap the many measurements we had taken over about a 3
year period in the Smokies, Congaree, Beall Woods, Cook Forest, Mohawk
Trail SF, and a dozen other sites. We'd done a lot of work before the
days of laser rangefinders, using a crown triangulation technique that
was fairly accurate, just very labor intensive. Considering the work we
put into the book, it isn't surprising to me that the species we
confirmed then as the true eastern giants have basically not changed. Oh
yes, there is one addition - the live oak. It must be added to the list
of the top eastern giants. We had the live oak in the first addition,
but didn't give it its just due.

    How about tree height, our specialty? In terms of what we believed
to be the tallest trees (as opposed to the tops in volume), the species
order has changed somewhat, but the two lead species have remained
firmly entrenched, even strengthened their holds on the titles of
tallest softwood and hardwood in the East. The species of which I speak
should come as no surprise: white pine for the conifers and tuliptree
for the deciduous. There are a few species that present occasional
challenges to these champions, but only as isolated trees. It also
shouldn't be surprising, exaggerations and all, that historical accounts
usually place these species at the head of the list. Afterall, trees
could be measured on the ground.

    Despite isolated specimens of several species that excite us, the
aggregates do tell the story in the case of white pine and tuliptree. Bu
what are the competitors? For conifers, the only eastern competitor of
the white pine for height is the loblolly. Still, I doubt that loblollys
ever seriously challenged the "Great Whites" in pure numbers and
distribution of locations of tall trees. By contrast, if Congaree Swamp
NM in SC is any example, the loblolly matches the whites in total
volume, perhaps exceeds it. Well maybe, but I'm not ready to go there
just yet. I remain in Lee Frelich's camp. Far too many 150-160-foot
tall, 14-15-foot giants were taken out in the Northeast and upper
Mid-west to pass judgement on the abundance of white pines in the
14-15-foot and over circumference class that would challenge the current
Congaree giants.

    As an ENTS trademark, we'll continue the big tree debates. The show
must go on. But are we doing serious research or just satisfying our
curiosities? What has the accumulation of all this big tree knowledge
done for us? For society? If we ignore the sarcastic among us; i.e. our
lists just give us the locations of more big trees to hug, I think we
can make a strong case that we have assembled tangible measures to use
in gauging how much environmental/forest degradtion is taking place
across the landscape - even in otherwise fairly well designed forestry
experiments. After all, many of those experiments consider a 16-inch
diameter tree ripe for the plucking - even overdue. As the landscape,
and the forests thereon, changes , we want to have a system of baselines
in place to assess the current state of things, such as the current
state of maturity of a forest versus the potential of the forest.

     In looking back over time, there is another reason for our
compulsions - and a darn good one. We want to document the state of
exemplary forest sites at given points in time as a reliable record for
posterity and for the same reasons that any good historian has for
wanting an accurate historical record to be maintained. As part of the
documentation, we want to capture images of the trees of our forest
icons in very personal ways that showcases individual standouts. This
requires that we go beyond focusing on the averages to the exclusion of
the individuals. It is in this highly individualized documentation
mission that we merge several disciplines.

    What keeps ENTS from being exclusively research-oriented is the
value judgements we make. We get up close and personal with the trees
and forest sites. In doing this, we may appear to violate the impersonal
requirement of objective science. But we can keep different objectives
separated in our approaches. We just want the range of future
researchers to be able to go beyond an either or dichotomy: superficial
public site descriptions at the one extreme and heavy scientific data at
the other. We want future generations to know not only about the ecology
of Cook Forest State Park's Forest Cathedral, but also about the
Longfellow pine and Seneca pines. We want people to know which trees
were climbed, when, and the results. Individuals matter to us, and if
they don't to others, they should.


Robert T. Leverett
Cofounder, Eastern Native Tree Society