Chronicles Of Measuring Champion Trees


Although professional tree people like foresters and arborists do a significant portion of the nominating and confirming for the big tree registries, the bulk of the trees on these lists are nominated by people with no formal training in tree work. Without active participation from ordinary people, the registries could not function.


George Miller is one such person. A retired Navy Officer native to the Southern Oregon coast, his interest in champion tree recording was sparked after a conversation with a forester friend of his. The man mentioned that their part of the coast was a particularly good area for Tanoak (Lithocarpus densiflora) and that he suspected a record tree could be found in the area. In 1997, less than a year after this conversation, George was elk hunting on some timber land not far from his home when he saw a Tanoak bigger than any he'd ever seen. He suspected it could be bigger than the national champion tree, but when he went back to take measurements, he found it within the boundary of an immanent clearcut. After a few phone calls, George was able to get the forester for the company contracted to do the logging to agree to come out and see the tree. They went and re-measured the tree, and the forester agreed that this would be a new national champion. He pledged to preserve it along with a few adjacent trees from being cut down.


Because of George Miller's efforts, in February of 2008 Ascending the Giants was able to plan an expedition to measure and document the tree, as well as a few other nominations that George had made. The Tanoak stands nearly alone in the hills a few miles back from the ocean near the hamlet of Ophir, between Port Orford and Gold Beach in private timber land.  After a beautiful daytime drive to the area, we set up camp in the dark on the edge of the clearcut in which the tree now resides.


In the morning George and his wife showed us to the tree, which stands nearly alone in the clearcut, looking like the haggard survivor of a nuclear war. The only photos we had seen of the tree were ten years old, and we were unprepared for the dramatic cavity at the base of the trunk and how it has changed during the last decade. One can literally walk into the base and gaze up into the dark, hollow trunk. Although the tree looks very precarious, we were heartened that it survived the December windstorm which destroyed so many other trees up and down the Oregon coast. In addition we could see that the side of tree opposite the lean was rapidly putting on wood to keep the tree from toppling over.


This tree is a dramatic example of a healthy tree's reaction to the combination of high-stress exposure and a structural weakness, conditions which can rapidly change its appearance and size. This Tanoak harbors a large cave-like cavity in the lower bole up to 6 feet in wide and 23 feet in height. As previously mentiononed, this cavity was hidden by an intact outer trunk as late as 1997. The change was likely caused by the extensive logging and removal of all woody plants around the tree, exposing it to intense coastal winds that were once buffered by forest.  These environmental changes soon began to test the tree's resiliance.

When a tree is subject to the stresses of constant wind on its canopy, its natural response is to add tissue and therefore strength to areas experiencing most stress. This tissue is called reaction wood. Hardwood trees like tanoak add this tissue to the top or tension sides of the trunk or branches. Conifers add wood to the bottom or compression side.  It is now apparent that the large hollow is causing the mighty tree to lean in to the more intact side of the trunk, and the tree is responding by adding large amounts of cellulose-rich reaction wood on the side being pulled, the tension side. This has warped and enlarged the lower bole of the tree, giving it very large dimensions and a strange shape. This trees future will be a struggle between nature's persistent decaying pathogens and trying winds, and the tree's ability to invest energy creating reaction wood to remain standing.


With all of this in mind we inspected the tree on the way up, deciding that although the bole was seriously compromised it was unlikely to go over on this calm day. We were pleasantly surprised by the crown of the tree, which was far more stable than the base. Even the top, which on a very old tree will often wane and be prone to rot and disease, was fairly intact despite losing a large dead leader last winter. We measured the height, then came down to measure the diameter and crown spread. We found that although the tree had lost 23 feet of height in the last ten years, it had put on 37 inches of circumference, mostly in that stressed far side of the trunk, and had 447 total points.


After this, we went to measure two other trees that George had nominated: a national champion Wax Myrtle (Pacific Bayberry,) and a state co-champion Shore Pine, both on state land adjacent to Highway 101, and about 50 yards apart. As the sun began to turn orange and shine through the trees that sheltered us from the ocean, the thick canopy and corky bark of the Shore Pine caused Brian's friction saver to become stuck at the top of the tree. A friction saver is a device that a climbing rope runs through so that it won't run on the tree's bark and damage the tree, and sometimes they get caught when a climber is trying to pull the climbing line out of the tree. When this happens, often the only option is to start from scratch and set another line in the tree. This was the situation we found ourselves in, with no option but to get back into the tree as the sun set to retrieve the friction saver. We came down well past dark with the aid of headlamps, tired and extremely hungry, but knowing that as big tree enthusiasts we could not ask for a more perfect day. We thanked George Miller profusely for all his help and enthusiasm, then headed for the nearest town for a burger and beer.



Sudden Oak Death (Phytothphora ramorum) is a disease which has devistated large populations of Tanoak in Northern California and Oregon. This sign is posted near an infected area within 30 miles of the National Champion Tanoak.

OSU Sudden Oak Death, PDF

Oregon Field Guide Video, Sudden Oak Death

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