Chronicles Of Measuring Champion Trees
There is the urban forest, and then there is the urban forest. As arborists, we usually use this term to refer to the cumulative effect of the the trees in a city. Almost never do we speak of an intact native forest within the urban area, because it is so rare. Although rare, the people of Rockaway Beach, Oregon know, it is not extinct.
Rockaway Beach is a town of about 1,300 people on the Northern Oregon coast. Straddling Highway 101, it is mostly a tourist town, but like most Oregon coast towns fishing and logging are historically very important. If you turn east off 101 into a residential area in the southern part of the town, go a few blocks, then turn left you come to an unremarkable-looking dead end. If you park there and take an unmarked and easy to miss trail departing from the dead end, you are in for a surprise. There, in the middle of the residential section of the town, is an ancient cedar bog which contains some extremely large and old Western Red Cedars (Thuja plicata) and Sitka Spruce (Picea sitchesis). This is not the urban forest, this is the forest primeval somehow preserved within the city. Furthermore this type of forest, with large cedars and spruce on flat ground, would have been extremely lucrative to loggers. Today it is very rare to see an old-growth cedar bog anywhere on the Oregon coast.
It seems that when Rockaway Beach was expanding, the town bought the land intending to make it into some sort of park, but never followed through. Since then it has become a place for folks to walk their dogs or go bird-watching, and for local teenagers to hang out. Most everyone who visited noted the extremely large and gnarly Western Red Cedar in the middle of the preserve. Because of the lack of signs or an 'official' trail, the tree and the area were something of a local secret. In 2007, members of the local historical society took it upon themselves to do something for the area. Seeing the impact of people walking up to the tree, compacting the soil and climbing on the root flare, they raised funds and built an elevated walkway around the trunk of the tree so that people could admire the tree up close without damaging it.
The tree was brought to our attention by Corvallis area big tree enthusiast Aaron Lesan and his wife Amy. Having measured trees with them before, we were very excited to hear their description of the Rockaway Beach tree, knowing that we would find it accurate. In February of 2007 we had visited the tree listed as the state champion Westen Red Cedar in Mt. Hood National Forest. While the tree is very impressive, its 11' diameter is nothing compared to the champion costal cedars of Washington state and British Columbia. There, many trees are over 18' in diameter are on the books, and probably many more are waiting to be discovered. While the Northern Oregon coast is still prime Western Red Cedar habitat, we had no records of living trees comparable to those coastal champions.
We went out to measure the tree on a grey saturday in mid April after the coast had received some unusually late season snowfall. We were greeted by a member of the historical society responsible for building the walkway around the tree and a writer for a local paper. They led us through the forest to the tree. Situated on the edge of a bog filled with elderberries and skunk cabbage, the tree is visible for some distance. The huge bleached-grey dead tops are unmistakable, sticking out above the forest canopy. The middle section, however seems to blend in with the surrounding trees. When you cross the bog and see the tree up close, the reason for this becomes apparent. The Rockaway Cedar is at the center of a complex of trees growing into and out of each other. Large Western Hemlocks emerge from the South and West sides of the tree, both growing out of furrows in the trunk wood with some roots in the ground and some in the rotten sections of the cedar's trunk. The hemlock on the west side has another large hemlock that is partially uprooted leaning on it, pushing in closer to the cedar. Judging by the growth on the uprooted tree, we estimated these trees have existed in this precarious situation for around 20 years. To see the Rockaway Cedar really felt like seeing an entire grove contained within a single tree. On the east side of the tree, we noticed several 25 foot tall hemlocks growing out of a major trunk crotch about 90 feet up the cedar. Following this mini-grove down, we saw these hemlocks' roots living inside the rotted trunk wood of the cedar running fro their perch all the way down into the ground. These trees must have sprouted and grown for many years cut off from the ground. Eventually, the trees' roots found earth and allowed the trees to thrive by giving them a more steady water source. Plants growing in this way are called hemi-epiphytes, and they are common in tropical rainforests, but this was certainly the first time any of us had seen a Western Hemlock growing in such a way.
As seasoned tree climbers, we were well aware of the brittle and untrustworthy nature of dead Western Red Cedar wood. Fortunately for us, a tall, stout Western Hemlock stands right next to the tallest trunk of the Rockaway Cedar. We split up, with Will climbing the Hemlock to obtain a height measurement and Brian and Sean climbing mid-way up the Cedar to take photos and document the extensive plant life growing out of the main trunk crotches in the tree. When everyone returned to the ground, we tallied up the height (154'), circumference (49') and crown spread to come up with a points total of 756. This is a hundred and thirty points more than the previous state champion. More importantly, the state of Oregon can finally claim to be the home of one of the truly elite sized Western Red Cedars, a competitor to the gargantuan costal cedars of our northern neighbors.