A recent article on the Washington Tree...
A beloved giant bowed
Washington Tree a shell of its former self after standing tall for centuries.
By Tim Sheehan / The Fresno Bee
(Updated Monday, August 1, 2005, 6:05 AM)
SEQUOIA NATIONAL PARK -- On a summer afternoon, finding a parking spot is a challenge near the General Sherman tree.
Paths near the famous sequoia in the Giant Forest are clogged by visitors from around the world, oohing and ahhing in various accents and languages as they jockey for positions to photograph the world's largest tree.
But about a mile and a half away by trail, all is quiet at the world's second-largest tree.
The Washington Tree, with a circumference of more than 100 feet at the base of its trunk, sits a short distance off the Alta Trail in Sequoia National Park's Giant Forest grove.
But the ancient behemoth that once stood 254 feet tall is a partially shattered remnant of its former self.
In January, park rangers discovered that the tree -- named for George Washington and estimated to be 2,500 to 3,200 years old, and perhaps as old as 4,200 years -- had suffered a partial collapse of its hollow crown because of heavy winter snow and wind, reducing its height to a mere 115 feet and leaving only a few sparse branches of live foliage.
It was the second catastrophic collapse of the tree's upper reaches in as many years.
In the fall of 2003, the Giant fire -- a lightning-sparked blaze that burned in the Giant Forest -- damaged the tree, causing half of the shell around the hollow interior to peel away.
But after the latest collapse, with trails covered with winter snow, rangers had to wait for months to make a thorough assessment of the tree's long-term prospects for survival.
"It lost a substantial amount of its live foliage," said Tony Caprio, a fire ecologist for the park. "On one side, the southwest side, there are maybe six small branches that are still alive."
As one of the most massive trees in the world, the Washington Tree has dominated its perch near a granite knob for millennia, surviving countless winter snows, summer droughts and wildfires. But having suffered so much damage in the past two years, can it continue to endure?
"I think so," Caprio said. "These trees are pretty resilient. ... As you walk around, you can see other trees with crown damage that are still alive."
Rangers say few park visitors venture away from the Sherman Tree and hike the trail out to the Washington Tree.
At the tree's robust base, huge shards of cinnamon-colored wood lie in scattered pieces, littering the forest floor for yards around like shrapnel.
Pieces measuring 25 to 30 feet long and yards thick show the scale of the winter's toll on the giant.
Scars from ancient fires mark the side that was the hollow interior of the tree.
Nearby is a large piece of what was the Washington Tree's signature branch -- a thick limb that used to reach skyward as if waving to visitors.
The hardiness of the giant sequoia, sequoiadendron giganteum, is evident in the survival of lesser specimens that have faced considerable challenges during their lifetimes.
Throughout the Giant Forest are other sequoias with broken tops, caves burned into their bases and other scars.
"There are a number of other trees that have gone through that stage, and the branches left alive assume a more dominant role," Caprio said. "All of a sudden you see these small branches begin turning upward."
Bill Tweed, the park's chief naturalist, said the Washington Tree and other sequoias are designed by nature to be stout survivors.
"If you have a live root and a live branch and they're connected by live bark, it can go on living," Tweed said. "Under those circumstances, it's a pretty reasonable thing to say the tree will probably live for hundreds of years."
After a Bee story in February about the damage to the Washington Tree, news outlets around the world repeated wire service reports that the tree was near death. Park rangers say they received international reaction from people concerned about the ancient giant.
"What we saw is that people see the giant sequoia as an icon for nature and how we relate to the world," Tweed said. "People see them as monuments to longevity and endurance, unchanging. ... They are sacred."
"For some people, seeing a giant sequoia change is like changing the paint job of the Sistine Chapel," he added.
Not only is the tree's health at issue, so is its status as the world's second-largest tree.
At its former height of 254 feet, researchers had estimated the volume of the Washington Tree at nearly 48,000 cubic feet, second only to the nearby General Sherman Tree and ahead of the third-ranked General Grant Tree, a giant sequoia in the Grant Grove of neighboring Kings Canyon National Park.
"The Park Service doesn't keep track of those kinds of statistics," Caprio said. "But among those groups that do, there are two ways of thinking -- one that wants the rankings to be changed and another that says it should be measured by what the tree would be if it was intact."
Prior to the recent damage, one could argue that the Washington Tree should be shuffled down the rankings.
Researchers from Humboldt State University and the University of Washington discovered a pit as they prepared to study the tree's complex crown structure.
Stephen Sillett, an associate professor of biological sciences at Humboldt State, rappelled into the huge pit, which ranged from 6 to 9 feet wide and reached from the tree's shattered top down nearly 115 feet toward the base.
The pit's interior walls were lined with rotten, decaying wood and scorch marks from ancient fires.
In their study, Sillett and the other 1999 researchers noted that because of the pit, the tree's actual wood volume was less than than that of the General Grant Tree.
The debate over size records illustrates the personification that humans are likely to attach to the trees, especially those that have been given names.
"People are great at looking at the sequoias in an emotional context," Tweed said. "We're fascinated by size, rarity and longevity."
And while people may have an emotional reaction to changes in the Washington Tree, he added, change is to be expected in nature.
"The purpose of the park," Tweed said, "is to allow the natural things to go on."
The mountains are calling and I must go. ~ John Muir ~ www.tarol.com