Searching for Champions in Western Montana

STORY & PHOTOS BY KAY BJORK

LEAN, NIMBLE AND PRACTICED AFTER 38 YEARS working in the rugged backcountry for the U.S. Forest Service, Dale Jorgenson moved like the light that streamed through the forest canopy. He paused briefly to scan the thick timber in search of a towering Western white pine in an old-growth forest of the Swan Valley and then shot deeper into the forest labyrinth.

The gigantic white pine he discovered in 2004 on the banks of Swan River while hunting whitetail deer was one of the biggest in the state. It is currently listed on the Montana Register of Big Trees at a lofty 172 feet tall and a hefty 230-inch circumference.

Like many others who have discovered champion trees, Dale has spent his life and career around trees – planting trees, cruising timber, clearing trails and serving as trail crew foreman. Many of the champion trees are found in remote and rugged locations where only foresters journey while completing research, setting up timber sales or doing trail maintenance.

The Department of Natural Resources and Conservation maintains Montana’s champion tree records through a partnership with the Forest Service and its regional Rocky Mountain Research Station, the American Forests organization, and the American Tree Farm System.

Montana Big Trees Program Coordinator and DNRC Forester Dan Rogers said the program is all about creating awareness and appreciation for big trees. Because the program is unfunded, they are largely dependent on the volunteer efforts of private citizens to discover new champions and help re-certify current champions. He calls the group of tree enthusiasts who routinely look for and re-measure champion trees, “Big Tree Hunters.”

The National Register of Big Trees began in 1940 after concerned forester Joseph Stern issued a call to locate and measure the country’s largest trees in an article published in American Forests magazine titled “Let’s Save our Big Trees.” American Forests maintains the National Register of Trees, which is updated each spring and fall as new trees are discovered or old champion trees die or are altered by elements such as disease, storms, fire, or erosion. The program is active in every U.S. state except Hawaii and used as a model for other programs across the globe.

Tree champions are determined by a point system that includes three measurements – height, circumference measured at four and a half feet, and one-fourth of the average crown spread. Trees within 15 points of one another are considered co-champions. Champion trees must be measured at least every 10 years to retain champion status. There could easily be an undiscovered bigger tree in some obscure place – deep in some of Montana’s millions of acres of wilderness and forestland.

There are two main tree categories: native and nonnative. Native trees were here before Columbus and other Europeans. Nonnative are introduced species, which includes naturalized trees that have become common and established as if they were wild. The National Tree Register includes 747 Native and 79 Naturalized trees.

Another distinction is whether the tree’s location is urban or wildland. Urban trees will often grow larger and faster because of the advantage of fertilizers, irrigation, and other human-caused conditions.

Montana’s Register includes more than 60 trees with over 90 champions because of co-champion listings. Six of those are also national champions; the Narrowleaf cottonwood, Plains cottonwood, Rocky Mountain Douglas-fir, White spruce, Crack willow, and Western larch.

“These trees are the best of the best, the strongest of the strongest,” says Rogers. They have survived storms, drought, disease and fire. Because of the probable genetic superiority, some of the champion trees have been used for grafting and cuttings. “It spreads the history and story of that tree,” notes Rogers.

Many of Montana’s champions are in the western portion of the state where trees thrive in national forests. The northwest portion of the state offers numerous champions: Lincoln County has 14, Lake County four, Flathead two, Sanders nine, Mineral one and Missoula 10. The climate of Northwest Montana is strongly influenced by moist Pacific maritime air masses resulting in Pacific Coast species that are absent in other portions of the state, including hemlock, cedar, Grand fir yew, and Western white pine. The northwest region is also largely forested and mountainous, creating a variety of habitats and vegetations.

Ravalli County has some of the mildest weather in the state and the highest number of champion trees with 27 listed on the state register.

High numbers can also result from more active searches. Big tree searching is a serious hobby for many tree enthusiasts. One nominator, Mark Lewing, a retired forester from Stevensville, is responsible for nearly half of the trees in the registry.

Big Tree HuntersDale Jorgenson using a clinometer to measure a tree.

Rogers says they receive around a dozen nominations each year, which result in six to eight new champions. Nominations are usually well researched and a qualified forester completes the measurements and confirmation of the tree’s status. It sometimes requires a closer look – sometimes even under a microscope – when dealing with a tree with numerous varieties like the willow, which has 30 different species. Many species still have no listed champions, including the Sitka alder, Common juniper, and Pussy willow, providing a teaser for new Big Tree Hunters.

Many of the big trees are on remote, rough terrain or private land, but there are still big trees that can be viewed during a day’s outing from the Flathead Valley. You can stroll through an ancient Western red cedar grove along a nearly mile-long loop nature trail in the Ross Cedars scenic area located near Libby. Many of the trees in this 100-acre scenic area are more than 400 years old and eight feet in diameter. You can also wander into the enchanting world of cedars on the Trail of the Cedars in Glacier National Park or, with a little more effort, along the Lion Creek Trail in the Swan Valley.

Also in the Swan Valley in the Girard Grove, near Seeley Lake, lives a gigantic Western larch – not only the largest in Montana, but also in the entire nation. Known as “Big Gus,” the 1,000-year-old tree was a sapling about the same time that Viking explorers led by Leif Erickson became the first Europeans to settle in North America. A dozen human lifetimes later, the tree looms to 163 feet and is over 22 feet in circumference – a dozen small children could play Ring-Around-the-Rosies around this tree. It is estimated that the larch survived at least 40 fires, protected by its thick bark and high crown.

Big trees often bear battle scars that help tell their life stories – the sharp scratches of a bear claw, the charring of fire, conks formed from disease, or marks from American Indians harvesting the sweet cambium beneath the bark.

Jorgenson has found plenty of gigantic trees in his travels throughout the Swan Valley, but the Western white pine, also known as King Pine, was the largest he had ever seen. He shared his discovery with his brother and a handful of colleagues and friends, leading them into an old-growth forest that feels a lot like sacred ground.

He said it was less than a mile to the big pine, but the route on his nearly annual trip to the tree was rarely exactly the same in the ever-changing forest where a game trail was now hidden by new downfall, brave little saplings dwarfed by old growth trees, and patches of brush – like the wicked thornapple bushes he dodged on his way to the river.

Jorgenson neared the location of the tree and stopped. Puzzled, he scanned the riverbank where he spotted another large white pine, which he called “a big stick,” but was pretty sure it wasn’t “his” tree. As he scrambled down the bank he spotted the tree – lying down in the river. His disappointment was clearly visible. “Dang, that’s too bad,” he said softly, shaking his head. He stood quietly for a moment and then hopped to the top of the reclining tree. He pointed to the top of the tree that now lay on the other side of the river and surmised that the tree had blown down across the river during a microburst, snapping the top as it crashed to the gravel riverbank. Afterwards the tree was swept sideways by the current until it lay parallel to the bank.

The old tree had fallen, making room for another champion tree. But unlike most other living things, the tree could be around for a long time, maybe providing a perch for a fisherman or a flock of ducks preening in the summer sun.

As he left the site, Jorgenson said, “I almost had a tear in my eye when I saw it.” It was a lot like losing an old friend.

Before leaving the serenity of the old-growth forest, he stopped at another old giant, a Western larch, to demonstrate the tools and techniques of measuring big trees. There was something therapeutic and hopeful in the ritual as he wrapped the tape measure around the tree as if hugging it and pointed a clinometer toward the treetop to measure its height as a sunray spilled through the tree branches and lit up his face. He had seen a lot of big trees in his time and was sure to see a lot more. And maybe someday, he would even discover another champion.