Not often does a defect catapult something to greatness. But in the case of the Big Tree, a ponderosa pine in La Pine State Park, it's likely a scar near its base that saved it from harvest, allowing it to grow to be among the largest of its species in the United States.
“More than likely all the trees that were (the Big Tree's) cohorts went into the timber industry and this tree survived because of its defect,” said Jason Morrow, executive director of Ascending the Giants, a nonprofit organization dedicated to finding and recording Oregon's largest trees.
It is presumed that the Big Tree will claim champion status as the biggest ponderosa pine in the U.S. in the next edition of the National Register of Big Trees, compiled by American Forests. Currently, the tree is ranked in first place. The final deadline for tree measurement submissions is March 15. American Forests bills itself as the oldest national nonprofit conservation organization in the country, according to its website.
”This is not officially the giant yet ~ I'm 99.9 percent sure until I hear back from the national registry,” said Brian French, co-founder of Ascending the Giants.
On Feb. 23, with snow swirling around the Big Tree, French and Damien Carré, board member of Ascending the Giants, attached their harnesses and climbing gear and began inching upward on a rope toward the top of the tree. Only occasionally did the climbers, both arborists from Portland, reach out to lightly touch the tree in order to steady or reposition their stance. French and Carré's mission was to measure the Big Tree to verify it has the highest score of any ponderosa pine in the country.
The National Big Tree Program uses a scoring system to recognize champion trees. Each score is based on a combination of three measurements: height, circumference and crown spread, with circumference carrying the most weight in the final score.
From the canopy of the tree, French sent a measuring tape down the length of the trunk to determine the height as 167 feet. Back on the ground, French and Carré wrapped the measuring tape around the circumference of the tree at breast height, which is 4 1/2 feet from the ground, to get 348 inches. They finished by ascertaining the crown spread, or widest width of the tree's branches, as 68 feet. Those measurements give the Big Tree a final score of 532.
Until recently, the Big Tree was ranked second to what was thought to be a higher scoring ponderosa pine in the El Dorado National Forest in California. But DNA testing of the tree in California proved it's a different variety, opening up the stage for the Big Tree to claim the No. 1 ranking.
“DNA testing on the tree said it wasn't a ponderosa. It was a Pacific ponderosa, so we moved it over to another species,” explained Sheri Shannon, coordinator for the National Big Tree Program.
The program recognizes three varieties of ponderosa pine: Pacific ponderosa pine (pinus ponderosa var. benthamiana), ponderosa pine (pinus ponderosa var. ponderosa) and Rocky Mountain ponderosa pine (pinus ponderosa var. scopulorum).
In the fall 2012 edition of the National Register of Big Trees, Oregon had 25 national champion trees. Florida had the most with 130 champions.
“We've got a lot of people out there that are so passionate about big trees and it's almost like the bigfoot hunters,” said Morrow. “These people go out on their weekends and drive all over God's creation looking for giant trees and knock on farmhouse doors, and none of this would be possible without them.”