A buried treasure of trees
A Washington state man who always loved to dig in the dirt unearths a petrified forest, covered by lava 15 million years ago while still upright.
By Tomas Alex Tizon, Times Staff Writer
June 28, 2007
Yakima, Wash. — Clyde Friend's life changed the moment his bulldozer hit the first tree on a hot summer afternoon in 2002 as he leveled a hill behind his workshop. Chips flew everywhere, a small explosion of brown and white shards.
He hopped off the dozer to investigate. There, embedded in the hill, was a mostly intact fossilized tree trunk standing upright in solid rock. "Well, that's different," he recalls thinking.
A heavy-machine operator for most of his working life, Friend was used to finding bits of petrified wood now and then. He'd never bumped into anything like this.
For the next several days, in the privacy of his remote 10-acre lot, Friend dug up the rest of his find by chipping away the surrounding rock. It turned out to be a petrified hickory tree, 18 feet tall and as big around as a cantaloupe.
He extracted it in pieces and put it in storage, thinking it could be worth something someday. Then he went back to leveling the hill — until he hit the second tree. It was the same height as the first, but thicker. The third tree was identical, but the fourth took his breath away: 20 inches in diameter.
"I thought, 'One more tree and that's the end,' " Friend says. "But after one, there'd be another one right behind. I haven't found the end yet."
Friend spent the rest of the summer, and much of the last five years, unearthing what scientists have since confirmed as an ancient hardwood forest that was buried under lava about 15 million years ago. The 2-acre hill, Friend learned, was a giant mound of volcanic rock known as basalt.
Friend has dug up about 200 petrified trees and expects to find hundreds more. The trees are mostly hickory, elm, maple and sweet gum. The tallest was 24 feet, the thickest 24 inches in diameter.
Wood becomes petrified (some scientists prefer the terms "fossilized" or "mineralized") when it gets buried under sediment and minerals slowly replace organic material, turning it to stone over time.
Friend showed samples to local petrified-wood collectors to get an idea of the trees' value, and he bought a $10,000 rock-cutting saw from a well-known rockhound in Seattle. Word of his discovery trickled out, and that's when the scientists started coming around.
Walt Wright, of Brea, Calif., a foremost expert in paleobotany (the study of fossil plants) and owner of one of the world's largest collections of petrified wood, said he had never seen anything like "Clyde's forest."
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