Superstars, databases, lists, and value    Robert Leverett
   Jan 10, 2003 16:06 PST 

    On occasion a friend pokes good natured fun at yours truly or another ENTS member for the amount of time we put into measuring trees. The humor isn't lost on any of us, but I suspect that on occasion our intense dedication gives us all pause to reflect. It is difficult for us to explain to each other, let alone outsiders, what drives our small group of tree measuring fanatics. Each of us has personal reasons for his/her measurement-mania, but there are motivations we share in common. We all share a fascination with big trees. That's a no brainer. We all enjoy the excitement of discovery. Everybody can relate to that. Then there is the quest for new understanding. Scientists are right with us on the curiosity trait. We share a compulsion for accuracy. Certainly both scientists and engineers undertand that compulsion (economists and weather forecasters may be clueless).

    Some of us have sporting blood that must be periodically satisfied. I think Bob Van Pelt and Will Blozan fit that category. Most of the public would understand were we to present our interest purely as sport. In that case it doesn't have to be practical. But regardless of which motivation we focus on, our common traits are in no way unique to the few of us. We're just not that far out on the tail of any curve. So if our motivations are not unusual and there are plenty of folks around who love big trees, why aren't there more of fanatical tree-measuring types?

    One reason for the shortness of the list of super measurers is that the knowledge we pursue is peripheral to other professions. There's no money in our quest and little outside recognition. While that bothers absolutely none of us, it does work to keep the list short. But if there's no money and very little recognition, is our compulsion just another frivilous human activity? Moreover, does being on the periphery of other professions mean that our data are valueless to those professions?Absolutely not. The database we are building is far from trivial. Our data provides us with additional knowledge about an important feature of the natural world and may be a tool for monitoring forest health/decline.

    This last point is rich with possibilities. One role our data could play is in focusing attention on our declining standards for forest health and productivity. If we can aid others in understanding the increasingly bleak picture of forest decline, then every second of our time will have been well spent.

    Each generation is conditioned to expect less from the forests surrounding it and the result is diminishing expectations with accompanying odd views. Today's high-graded New England forests are described as resilient. A prominent forestry official here in Massachusetts has stated on many occasions that no matter what we do to our forests in New England, they bounce right back. By my standards, this official has exceedingly low expectations and no understanding what our forests once produced. Without stable baselines for comparisons, misunderstandings are to be expected. So, do we have any baselines to use? Any at all?

    Many fine scientists have observed that old growth reserves provide us with useful baselines to monitor the general condition of our forests. I don't know how much baseline monitoring is actually taking place, but conceptually, the value of old growth for monitoring is recognized. Well, I would argue that ENTS big tree/tall tree lists can also act as baselines for monitoring individual species and identifying exceptional sites. Our lists could eventually help us to see what is happening to our trees, species by species and site by site.

    Dr. Tom Diggins made some extremely good points on the role and importance of accurate big tree lists in putting sites like Zoar Valley into context. What should we expect from a hardwood forest at the latitude of Zoar Valley and confined to the bottom of a narrow river gorge? What growth ranges can we place on the development of each species? When do we proclaim a place as exceptional and seek the reasons why? Are Cook Forest State Park and Mohawk Trail State Forest exceptional places purely as a consequence of extra growing time, or are those places exceptional for other reasons that we need to know about?

    These days, I enjoy thinking about potential applications for the data we're gathering. But when I ask that question of others, I'm usually met by silence and it isn't due to any lack of trust for our data. It is just that the uses to which baseline big tree data might be put have not been thought through, so there's a lot of mental stumbling by yours truly at this point. I tend to flip between site-level detail and big picture scenarios. As of late, the latter have been forcing their way through my aging synapses. I've been asking myself how that different species can be ranked overall, regionally, and by site in ways that can tell us definitively that, places like Zoar Valley, which do not have an official stamp of approval are truly exceptional. Enough on this subject for now.

    On the subject of our growing categories of lists, based on the historical records and the data we have collected so far, what are the 5 tallest species of hardwoods in the eastern USA? I'll take the first stab at a list, which reflects my faith in future discoveries as much as what's in our current database.

    1. tulip tree
    2. sycamore
    3. sweet gum
    4. white ash
    5. cherry bark oak

    The number 2 choice above is a reflection of my unwaivering faith in the species. In Massachusetts, so far it is tied for the number 2 spot for hardwoods. In New York, it presently occupies the number 1 spot. In North Carolina, it presently is number 3. It is tempting to include bitternut hickory as at least equal to #5. As of now, I'd place it as #6. But, below #6, the choices become a roll of the dice. Other species that tree books rank high for tallness include pecan and black walnut. However, at this point our data do not confirm them as reaching the heights commonly attributed to them. We can get them into the 130 and I would have no problem accepting the low 140s, but above that, I'm unsure.

    The order of the top 10 could be nailed down now that Tom Diggins is located in the Mid-west. In terms of the conifers, here's the list as I see it.

    1. white pine
    2. loblolly pine
    3. eastern hemlock
    4. bald cypress
    5. red spruce

    It is a close call between 2 and 3 above. The number of tall hemlocks is skewed courtesy of the southern Appalachians. Many more survive than do original growth loblollies. I suspect that in colonial times, super loblollies were much more prevalent.

Now, let's combine the two lists. Again, what follows is intended to reflect the performance of each species over its entire range.

1. white pine
2. tulip tree
3. loblolly pine
4. eastern hemlock
5. sycamore

One final list - hardwoods for Massachusetts. This list is not as easy as merely listing the current champions. I've not concentrated on each species equally, but based on the data collected thus far, the list shapes up as follows.

1. white ash (the clear winner)
2. sycamore (maybe a hair above #3)
3. sugar maple (actually #2 based on current measurements)
4. tulip tree (why it isn't #2 is a mystery)
5. northern red oak (this species has risen on the list)

Bitternut, shagbark, and pignut hickory are all too widely scattered to challenge the northern red oak. Cottonwood would be #6 and were there more of it, would challenge red oak.

Okay BVP, WB, CR, DL, LF, PJ, JR, and TD, your turns. Aw heck, everybody's welcome.


RE: Superstars, databases, lists, and value    Dale J. Luthringer
   Jan 13, 2003 06:04 PST 

Here are the top five tallest deciduous trees at Cook Forest:

1. black cherry
2. tuliptree
3. white ash
4. red maple
5. Am. beech

If we were to add our conifers into the list, it would look like this:

1. white pine
2. E. hemlock
3. black cherry
4. tuliptree
5. white ash

N. red oak and cucumbertree would be tied for 6th in the deciduous list,
although there are many more red oak than cucumbers at Cook Forest.

Re: Superstars, databases, lists, and value    thomas diggins
   Jan 13, 2003 07:19 PST 
Bob, Dale, et al.

In Zoar the top 5 deciduous broad-leafs are:

1) and 2) Sycamore and Tulip Tree (so close at 149-150+ they are
essentially tied)
3) Bitternut
4) White ash
5) Eastern Cottonwood

Interesting mix that I think reflects a very dynamic riverfront/terrace
system. Next in line are:

6) Northern Red Oak
7) Black Walnut
8) Sugar maple
9) American basswood
10) Black Cherry

Definitely a different forest from Cook.


RE: Superstars, databases, lists, and value    Leverett, Robert
   Jan 13, 2003 10:12 PST 

   The bitternut hickory looks like a sleeper in all of our lists. Across its full range, bitternut may retain its relative position for height as well as the better known species.