Chronicles Of Measuring Champion Trees

Limber Pine

On his website, conifer expert Dr. Chris Earle has dubbed this exceptional old limber pine "Dielman's Monarch" in honor of the discoverer of the tree, Gary Dielman of Baker City, Oregon. That's me.  In the summer of 2008, I led Earle, Dr. Robert Van Pelt, and a couple of others to the tree, which is located on Cusick Mt. in the southern part of Eagle Cap Wilderness in northeastern Oregon.

Upon first sight of the tree, Van Pelt exclaimed, "This [tree] is totally awesome!"  Quite a compliment from a man who's discovered over thirty record big trees. Van Pelt's measurements of the tree confirmed his first impression: 254 in. circumference (DBH 80.9 in.); 30.6 ft. height; 27 ft. average spread; 292 total points, making it the third largest limber pine on record in the world, exceeded only by Colorado's (295 points) and Utah's world record (349 points).

When I first saw the tree in August 1998, even though I had had no experience with record big trees, I was immediately blown away by the tree's massive main trunk and overall gnarly appearance. Most of the tree looked like it had been dead for centuries. Most of the trunk and three branches or tops' there used to be other tops that long ago fell off and disappeared down slope were completely denuded of bark showing nothing but dried, ashen-gray, weathered wood, looking as if whitewashed.
But the tree was not dead! A boa constrictor-like strip of live bark climbed the uphill side of the trunk wrapping its way around and up one top culminating in lush green foliage punctuated by green pine cones at the tips of its branches. It stood in stark contrast to all the dead wood below.

I was so impressed with the tree that I wanted to document it, but I'd run out of film for my 35mm camera. In July 2001, equipped with my first digital camera, I returned to the tree and took over 50 photos. Relocating the tree was not a sure thing. My 1998 discovery of the tree was the result of pure chance. After summiting Cusick, I took what I thought would be a faster way down the mountain but ran into difficulty requiring that I side-hill to my original route. On a steep section of the mountain no one would ever visit on purpose, I ran smack-dab into this monster tree. There were no other trees like it. I had assumed the tree was a white bark pine.  Curious about what the age of such a huge tree might be, I contacted USFS ecologist Charles Johnson at Wallowa-Whitman National Forest headquarters in Baker City. Johnson said it was no doubt a limber pine. Showing considerable interest, Johnson said he'd put the tree on next year's schedule to core-bore. 

When Johnson died in March 2007, shortly after retiring, he had not yet been able to free up enough time in his field seasons to apply his core borer to the tree. That's not surprising, since it takes three days to hike twelve miles to the base of Cusick Mt., ascend the mountain, and hike back out.

Last summer (July 2009), I returned to Cusick Mt. and the venerable limber pine, probably for the last time for this 70-year-old, when I led a producer and a videographer for Oregon Public Broadcasting's award-winning weekly program Oregon Field Guide to document what might be the oldest living thing in the Northwest. Joining us were a silviculturist and an ecologist from the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, and a dendrochronologist from Minnesota. The program will air sometime in the months after September 2009.

Since the core of the tree is hollow, the tree's age can never be determined with any certainty.  But I've learned that in the next drainage north, ecologist Johnson took a core from a limber pine with a DBH of 57 inches that he estimated at 2,030 years old. The Rocky Mountain Tree-Ring Research website
which maintains a list of oldest trees of different species. It lists two pinus flexilis trees at 1661 and 1659 years old located in Colorado and Idaho.

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