Chronicles Of Measuring Champion Trees

White Alder

Just west of Salem, Oregon daily commuters and weekend travelers speed along the Willamette river on state hwy 22. This area, Eola, is well known for it's Oregon White Oaks and river bank Cottonwoods. What many may not know is that a champion tree resides only a couple hundred yards from the hwy.


The national champion White Alder (Alnus rhumbifolia) hides behind a blanket of vegetation bordering the highway corridor.  The tree was nominated by Maynard Drawson in 1984 and accepted into the National Big Tree Registry. Far into the expected duration of an Alder's lifespan, the tree still retains its title as the largest known White Alder.


Typically, a big tree hunter would expect to find a champion tree in a species' core range; the place where the tree is common and growing in conditions to which it is perfectly suited.  As we have already seen with Black Walnut this is not always the case.  White Alder is generally found in much warmer, drier sites, particularly along streams from central California to Baja.
In Oregon and Washington it generally follows small streams on the east side of the Cascades. Drawson found this tree on a south facing slope tucked near the base of Eola hills, and was keen enough to distinguish it from a Red Alder, which looks very similar and is much more common in the Wallamette Valley.


We were lucky to have seen this tree. Like other newly developed land in this area, a short term land owner had cut down swaths of forest adjacent to the Alder, exposing the giant on one side. The soil grade was also changed for what looks to have been preparation for housing construction. Perhaps for this tree the housing and construction market collapse of 2008 was a reprieve.


When we arrived to measure the tree and saw the changes to the landscape we thought for sure the tree had been cut down. Instead, we found little construction activity around the base of the tree and no digging or visible gashes on the stem, only remnants of the cut forest piled up like Lincoln logs near its trunk.


We set our climbing lines as high as possible and measured the height. We climbed slowly and with caution. There are times that we push our limits, and this turned out to be one of those times.  Given the reputation of alder wood as brittle, mushy and unstable, we were very concerned with the large and conspicuous decay column occasionally visible in the trunk.  None the less, the top of the tree did seem sturdy enough, certainly more so than one would expect of their more common relative, the Red Alder.  Before retuning to the ground we made extensive photo documentation of the decaying areas; this will help us monitor the tree's response to the decay. The climb took longer than planned and the sun had already set before our feet were grounded again. The circumference measurement was taken with the aid of headlamps, which would have been easy had it not been for the dense blackberry thicket that enveloped the Alder's bole.


As we would expect for an aging tree, the height had declined, the diameter had increased and after all the work was done we found the tree to net a total of 250 points, an increase from the previous measurements.  The Eola giant now boasts a height of 91 feet with its trunk over 4 feet thick.

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