Chronicles Of Measuring Champion Trees

Baker Cypress

The Baker Cypress (Cupressus bakeri) is the type of tree that makes us love living inOregon. A large tree anywhere else, with healthy specimens often growing to over 100 feet tall, this ancient tree species is among the smaller trees in the oversized forests of the Siskiyou Mountain Range. It has developed a niche in forests dominated by larger, faster growing trees such as Grand Fir, Douglas-fir, Sugar Pine and Ponderosa Pine by inhabiting the poor soil atop old lava flows where other trees have difficulty growing.Fire being frequent in these often parched areas, the tree reproduces by releasing seeds only after a fire. The cones are held on the branches indefinitely and are closed until opened by a fire, which often kills the tree. The cones hold viable seeds for up to five years.


Like those two more famous Southern Oregon natives, the Port Orford Cedar and the Brewer’s Spruce, the small geographical range and highly specific habitat of the Baker Cypress make it vulnerable to human disturbance. Currently the Baker Cypress is listed as a threatened species (one step below endangered,) and this is primarily due to fire suppression techniques and logging of other trees in its native range. Within the last century, known stands have been lost completely. Now there are a total of nine scattered stands of Baker Cypress, one of them two miles long and the rest far smaller.


Concerned that the largest of the species might die without ever being documented or recognized, we were disappointed to learn that the only champion tree information that the Oregon Big Tree Registry had for the species was a single tree last updated in 1976. We contacted the registry and the local ranger station, but the only information we could get was from a ranger who had ‘heard that it blew down.’ We felt very strongly that such a rare and important tree should have a champion listed, and that its information should be accurate and up to date.


Initially this project was on the back burner due to the remoteness of the location and the great distance from our home of Portland (the tree is in the mountains near the California border, west of the Applegate River,) but finally in late October we were able to make the trip out to see if the tree was still there. After an initial setback of a washed out bridge, we consolidated gear and people into the only four-wheel drive vehicle available, and were surprised to find the road from there on in fairly good condition. Thanks to the documentation provided by the Oregon Big Tree Registry, we were quickly able to locate the watershed where we could find the tree.We split up, and walked parallel to each other from the road up the steep snowy ridge.


Soon enough Brian shouted that he had found the tree. Indeed it was blown over, and from the look of it, had been dead for decades. We were very disappointed to see the tree, clearly the largest in the grove, rotting on the ground, and imagined how majestic it must have been when it was still alive.After taking some photos of the stump and the fallen tree, we talked about how to proceed. Having come such a long way, and still being in a beautiful grove full of mature Baker Cypress, we decided we should nominate a new champ. The fallen tree was the only listing that Oregon had, and the California champion (the only other state where Baker Cypress is found) has relatively small dimensions, we realized we would likely be nominating the new national champion.


Because of the Baker Cypress’ preference for land on top of old lava flows, the grove was shaped like a thin ribbon running down the ridge. After walking from one end of the grove to the other, we went back to a large tree we had seen while looking for the old champ. Without a doubt, this tree with a scar running up one side and impressive height was now the largest tree in the grove.


We measured the circumference and crown spread of the tree, and due to the delicate nature of these trees’ bark, it was decided that only one person should climb the tree for a height measurement to reduce impact. The solo climb went very quickly with almost no impact on the tree, and the height measurement taken (96 feet,) easily put it ahead of the California tree to be the new national champion.


The impending dark forced us to pack up and head back, but we are still thinking about the Baker Cypress and hope that soon we will be able to search other groves for even larger specimens of this magnificent tree. Most of all, we hope that public awareness will help preserve the amazing biodiversity of the Siskiyou region for future generations.

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