The Cheoah Hemlock   Will Blozan
  May 22, 2006 08:48 PDT 
Cheoah Hemlock climb, March 31, 2006

The Cheoah Hemlock was spotted and named by Rusty Rhea, USFS-NC Forest
Health Specialist, during an aerial predator beetle release (to combat
hemlock woolly adelgid) in the surrounding grove in May 2004. During a
release in a nearby tree, Rusty asked if I had seen the tree downstream, one
he thought to be a giant standing 160’ tall. When I returned to the ground I
checked it out. I measured the girth to over 16’, but lacking a laser was
not able to measure the height. Jess Riddle and I returned several weeks
later to measure the tree and others in the grove.
Kelsey Tract Old Growth Hemlocks
May 2004

Carolina hemlock forest
Kelsey Tract, Highlands, NC

The tree grows in what is known as the Kelsey Tract. It is a 271 acre
protected relic of a vast (1000 acre+) old-growth eastern and Carolina
hemlock forest near Highlands, NC. Elevation of the tract is approximately
3800 feet at the lowest portion and goes up to 4260 feet on the ridge top.
The coves are dominated by incredible ancient eastern hemlock while the
ridges are dominated by wind “flagged” Carolina hemlock, eastern white pine
and pitch pine. Dense and oppressive shrub layers exist in both forest
types, with dog-hobble, rosebay rhododendron and cinnamon clethra dominating
the eastern hemlock forest and Catawba rhododendron, mountain laurel, and
blueberries dominating the Carolina hemlock forests. Both forests contain
very old and gnarly trees of many species, with the oldest known Carolina
hemlocks found at this site.

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Cheoah Hemlock from 2004 - Much greener than present status
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Lower trunk 


Jess and I were able to measure several awesome hemlocks that, considering
the high elevation, were exceptionally tall and large. One tree, which is a
respectable 14’2” in girth, was measured to 161’ tall, one of the few known
in that height class, and the highest topographically located specimen. In
fact, it is one of only eight hemlocks located outside of the Smokies that
reaches 160’. The Cheoah Hemlock, which grows at 3850 feet, was indeed a
tall tree as measured by laser to 157’. With an average crown spread of 47’
it is a contender for a new National Champion to replace the fallen tree on
Ramsay Branch, Sevier County, TN-GRSM.

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Jason Childs at the base
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Will on initial ascent standing on a huge reiteration

But most impressive was the Cheoah tree’s huge canopy, with live limbs
covering fully 65% of the tree. Cascading limbs wound their way to within 8
feet of the ground. The crown was composed of huge reiterations that
supported the largest canopy of any eastern hemlock we had ever seen. The
huge trunk, full canopy and large photosynthetic area suggested it could be
one of the largest hemlocks ever documented. Thus it was settled- it needed
to be climbed!

Earlier in the month Jess and I measured a huge, single-trunked hemlock on
Caldwell Fork, Haywood County, NC-GRSM; a.k.a. the “Caldwell Colossus”.
After the climb data was analyzed this tree turned out to be the largest
living hemlock in the Smokies- just ~17 cubes smaller than the ~1402 ft3
Yonaguska Hemlock Michael Davie and I climbed in 1998.  The Caldwell Colossus
had almost the exact dimensions as the Cheoah Hemlock, and contained 1385
cubic feet of wood. If the Colossus could be so large with a single trunk
(the Yonaguska Hemlock split into two leads at ~75’), just how large could
the Cheoah Hemlock be? Caldwell Colossus Climb Report

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Jason descending the north leader

With the help of climber Jason Childs and my dad, Carl, we set out to
measure the Cheoah tree. Jason and I climbed the tree while Jess and my dad
surveyed the (thick!) vegetation surrounding the tree. A complicating factor
on this tree was the huge crown with multiple leaders and subordinate
reiterations. The trunks are easy to measure but the fused sections where
they fork posed a challenge. Wood volume is typically calculated by
measuring the girth at the “ends” of round trunk sections. The measured
sections are selected based on changes in the trunk shape or profile and the
resulting “pieces” added together to calculate the volume of the entire
tree. The fused sections, however, are anything but round and a direct girth
measurement over-estimates the area and subsequently the volume of the

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Wood at 80"

Lacking high-tech gadgetry like Dr. Van Pelt, we resorted to a low-tech but
surprisingly functional system using two six foot poles. In this case we
used very stiff bean poles from a garden store in a last minute decision to
try the method. The set-up goes like this:

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Setting up the frame to map a fused section

With two climbers on opposite sides of the tree, an area of fusion is
selected to be measured. The poles are connected by a rope (we used
non-stretch arborist throw line) threaded through opposite ends of the poles
so they are adjustable. The poles are temporarily tensioned and the distance
between the ends measured. Adjustments are made until they are parallel and
perpendicular to the axis of the trunk. The slight tension between the poles
holds them steady against the trunk. The climbers sight across the poles and
agree on a “0” point from which to begin measurements. The “0” point is the
“point of contact” at one end of the frame when a hard contractors tape is
stretched across at 90 degrees to the poles. The “0” point is marked on both
sides as the common reference. This reference is the “0” on the X axis for
each pole, and the hard tape is used to measure in to the trunk across the
entire intercept with the pole. Thus, the trunk profile can be plotted as
the distance from the X axis reference point and the distance in to the
trunk as the Y axis. Points where the tree contacts the pole is recorded as
whatever the X distance is and a “0” for the Y. We measured at changes in
the trunk profile and to the nearest ¼ inch. Graphing of the data gives a
nice cross section of the fused trunk.

The next step was to convert the data into area so as to calculate the
equivalent circular area to plug into the volume formula. This was Bob
Leverett’s job since Jason and I climbed the tree and collected the data!
Undaunted, he developed a trapezoidal area function in an Excel spreadsheet
that used the raw data as measured in the field. Dr. Bob Van Pelt similarly
graphed the data and used the histogram function in Photoshop to estimate
area. The numbers from each method were 1.67% different.

We were well on the way to finding out just how large this tree was. First,
a little more detail on the crown measurements. I initially ascended the
tree and climbed the leader Jess said was the tallest (he was right by
1.5’). I stretched the tape to the top and then affixed it to the stem about
9’ from the top. The tape was laid along the trunk all the way to the ground
and this served as our reference for all subsequent measurements. Since the
crown was so wide and so many parts had to be measured individually, I
sketched a map of the tree while Jason was ascending to help record data and
keep track of things. After this tree, I don’t know how Dr. Van Pelt keeps
his sanity in those immensely complicated redwoods and the gnarly trees we
have climbed together like the Sag Branch Tuliptree and the Middleton Oak! I
am in awe!

Jason hovered by the tape for most of the climb as I sighted back to it with
a clinometer to monument the heights above ground where I took the girth
measurements. This was tremendously helpful and sped things up a lot. Even
so, it took us six hours to map and measure the tree. I never thought that
two climbers could be so far apart in a hemlock! At times we were on
adjacent leads 15 or more feet apart.

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Trunk confusion- note grafted limbs

For some reason, this tree had an unbelievably complicated crown dominated
by multiple splits, forks and reiterations. This complex architecture added
to the climb experience in many ways, not the least of which was simply
being surrounded by an utterly artistic and strikingly beautiful tree that
literally engulfed and humbled us. The trunk sections were so huge and the
canopy so dense it was as if we were climbing in a huge head of broccoli.
What I found very interesting was the fact that sections of the canopy was
linked together by branch fusions. For example, a branch from the main north
leader crossed through the inner canopy, and fused to subordinate
reiteration #2 on the way to its final fusion into the south leader.
Subordinate reiteration #3 traveled up the tree from its origin on the lower
trunk at 71 feet and then fused and disappeared into the north leader 38
feet higher up. Equally curious was that the four main tops of the tree were
oriented almost due north south and ascended as follows from south to north:
151.7’, 155.7’, 156.5’, and 158.0’. These tops were all vigorous and young
in character, which was surprising since the lower portion of the tree
looked ancient. I suspect the tree was suppressed for many years, developed
a gnarly crown, and then was released into the canopy. The surrounding
forest has very minimal competition on this tree as it is nearly open-grown
with no adjacent trees of consequence except perhaps on the eastern side due
to the steep slope.

Ok, back to the volume. The single leader that the tape was set on scaled
1231 cubic feet, making it one of the largest hemlocks ever accurately
documented. The multiple tops and reiterations scaled another 333 cubic feet
for a grand total of 1563 cubic feet! This is over 11% larger than any other
hemlock thus far documented, and as such firmly secures the title of the
largest eastern hemlock ever accurately documented and claims the title to
the largest evergreen conifer in the eastern United States (bald cypress, a
deciduous conifer, is WAY larger than any other eastern conifer). Eastern
hemlock FAR surpasses the largest known eastern white pines and loblolly
pines, the only other eastern evergreen conifers capable of exceeding 1000
cubic feet. Ironically, the largest eastern white pine known may be a nearby
tree in the Cullusaja Gorge. Jess and I feel it will scale about 1150 cubic
feet and we plan to reticle it soon. Only the Cornplanter Pine (PA), the Ice
Glen Pine (MA), The Conway Pine (MA) or the Tamworth Pine (NH) may challenge
the size of the huge pine in the Cullusaja Gorge, also known as the Zahner

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Will on the south leader

Folks, barring the very slim chance of some unknown discovery of an immense
hemlock elsewhere in the southern Appalachians I feel we have found the
largest known specimen of its species. Jess Riddle, Michael Davie and I have
combed much of the Smokies and have never seen a tree that would rival this
one. There is still a lot of hemlock territory to cover- but it is at
increasingly higher elevations where, at least in the Smokies, the species
typically decrease in size. The largest Great Smoky Mountains National Park
contender we all three agreed on was the Caldwell Colossus, which is fully
12.1% smaller than the Cheoah Hemlock.

Adelgid from the Caldwell Colossus showing typical infestation

Exciting as this find is, the hemlock woolly adelgid has a firm grip on the
tree despite the tens of thousands of beetles released less than two years
ago. The entire grove is gray, and all the terminal tips on the Cheoah Tree
are dead. Obviously, the beetles are not working. Even worse off is the
Caldwell Colossus, which in my opinion, is almost certainly dead. Neither
tree will recover to their full glory for many, many years, if at all. I
firmly feel the Cheoah Hemlock can be saved with insecticidal intervention,
but so far I have had limited response by officials in the ranger district.
The Kelsey Tract is extremely significant in that it has huge and tall trees
for the elevation and has adjacent old-growth examples of both eastern and
Carolina hemlock forests. The cost of the beetle releases alone is far more
than the funds needed to treat the entire grove at today’s chemical cost.

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Are the beetles working? 

These cost estimates do not include labor, but I for one would gladly
volunteer to treat several thousand inches. I know there are others who
would join in this effort, and the task of treatment would not be
overwhelming at all. I am just afraid it is too late, and this will be the
fate of many of our exemplary groves. We have already lost the tallest known
eastern hemlock forest ever documented- the East Fork Grove in the Chattooga
River watershed in South Carolina. This grove contained six of the eight
known trees outside of the Smokies over 160’. They were destined to grow to
exceed the record height of 169’10” within five years, but the sucking
bastards got to them first.


RE: The Cheoah Hemlock $$$ to treat   Will Blozan
  May 22, 2006 14:19 PDT 


Old-growth (eastern) hemlock forests I have treated average around 1000
diameter inches per acre. The Kelsey Tract is not purely eastern hemlock and
has a significant acreage of Carolina hemlock, bare rock and heath thickets.
A wild guess would be 100 acres of hemlock forest averaging 800 diameter
inches per acre for both species. This would be an approximate total of
80,000 diameter inches. Using a median application rate for soil injections
and the current cost of chemical, the cost in material to treat the entire
grove would be $50,400. I estimate it would take my crew 18-24 days to
complete the job.


James Smith wrote:
  Amazing report.

What would be the cost of treating this grove? What is the cost of
treating such a tree?

RE: Saving the Cheoah Hemlock - Will's Destiny RAIN   Will Blozan
  May 22, 2006 14:27 PDT 

Last year Highlands had 31 inches of rain... in June. The annual rainfall
likely exceeds 90" regularly, however, I have no data to back it up.

  From: Robert Leverett 
Sent: Monday, May 22, 2006 12:56 PM

One heck of a report! ENTS at its very best. The Cheoah Hemlock sets
the bar at such a high level, that I doubt it will ever be seriously
challenged - given the impact of the adelgid.

   What is the closest rainfall recording station in that area and what
does is show as the annual rainfall? Given the high elevation at which
the Cheoah tree grows and what we know about the region's abundant
precipitation, it would be interesting to see how precipitation,
degree-days, and topographical variables could be combined to predict
other great hemlock hot spots. What makes that area so different from
Cullasaja Gorge, for instance?