Wednesday, December 7, 2016

An Exceptional New England White Pine

The following is an essay by good friend and guest writer Bob Leverett, a nationally recognized expert on eastern old growth forests. The text and photos were supplied by Bob, except as noted.  Enjoy!

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Saheda, Profile of a Great New England White Pine

by Robert T. Leverett

December 6, 2016



On November 27th, my wife Monica and I went to the Elders Grove in Mohawk Trail State Forest (MTSF). We wanted to walk off some of our Thanksgiving turkey, especially the stuffing, but that was not my only mission. I wanted to re-measure the huge Saheda white pine to record its end-of-2016 statistics.
The Saheda Pine

 I keep close tabs on the annual growth of this tree, and was absolutely thrilled to confirm a height of 171.0 feet and a girth of 12.0. Saheda has finally arrived! 
The big Mohawk pine has the distinction of being the second tallest tree we know of in New England, and the combination of its height of 171 feet and girth of 12 feet places Saheda in even more exclusive company. So far as we know, only one other white pine in the entire Northeast has achieved the combination of 12 x 170: the Seneca Pine in Cook Forest State Park, Cooksburg, PA. It is a marvelous old growth specimen that reaches 12.6 feet around and 174.9 feet in height.

Where Saheda Fits: 12 x 170 Trees


In addition to the Saheda and Seneca Pines, there is only one other species in the Northeast and central and upper Midwest capable of achieving this combination of girth and height – Liriodendron tulipifera, or tulip tree. There is a single tulip tree in Ohio that makes the combination. The tulip tree’s dimensions are: girth = 15.2 feet, height = 171.0 feet as measured by American Forest National Cadre member Steve Galehouse of Cleveland, Ohio.

To be fair, once the South is reached, all bets are off. For example, there are many 12 x 170s in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, mostly tulip trees. But keeping our focus on the Northeast and central and upper Midwest, so far, it is a 3-tree club. And even if more 12 x 170s are found, I doubt that we’ll ever see more than a half dozen in that geographical area over the next decade.

Tall Pines in New England

By the middle of the 1800s, most of New England was cleared of its original forest cover. The countryside was one largely of fields and settlements; the forest cover had been reduced to no more than 20 to 30% of the landscape. Remaining woodlands were often on hillsides and used as woodlots. However, since the early 1900s, the forests have grown back, and a beneficiary of the 1800s clearings has been Pinus strobus, eastern white pine – the former glory of New England. White pines seed generously in abandoned fields.

The white pine is legendary. It is the tree of peace of the Iroquois Nation and holds similar status in some of the Algonquin speaking tribes. It is a good wildlife tree and its inner bark is edible for humans. It is the tallest of all our native eastern species of trees - at least if we accept the anecdotal accounts of early chroniclers, forest historians, and newspaper stories. Reports of historical white pines up to a wholly improbable 260 feet have been reported. Though we now discount these sources, we do accept that a few white pines in the eastern United States did reach heights of 200 feet or slightly more. In his research, the late forest historian Dr. Gordon Whitney stated that white pines could reach 150 feet, rarely 180, and very rarely 200. That was then.

Today’s pines above 150 feet in New England need to grow on highly favorable sites and be at least 120 years in age. Most New England pines fail to meet one or both of these criteria. Still, over large geographical areas, there will usually be a few sites with a few 150-footers. In Massachusetts, so far we’ve confirmed white pines making it to 150 on seven properties. They are:

Property # of 150s
Mohawk Trail State Forest, Charlemont 134
Bryant Homestead (TTOR) Cummington 20
Kenneth M. Dubuque State Forest, Hawley 7
Ice Glen, Stockbridge 5
Monroe State Forest, Monroe 2
U.S. Fish Hatchery, Monterey 1

At first, Mohawk’s 134 looks like a typo. It is not, but the over-powering dominance of Mohawk Trail State Forest is a separate story. Within the Northeast, Mohawk has a single competitor and that is Cook Forest State Park, PA. Cook has slightly fewer 150s than Mohawk, but has more 160s and 170s, and has the distinction of being the home of the Northeast’s tallest tree, the Longfellow Pine at 183.0 feet.

It turns out that from 150 to 160 feet, we now have a fair number of sites, but above 160, the numbers plummet. Currently, we have only two 170-footers in New England. Saheda is one, and arguably the most impressive. The other is the Jake Swamp pine at 174.0, as of the end of the 2016 growing season.

The Search

Since the mid-1980s, partnering with a number of people, I’ve been on a mission to measure and record exceptional white pines over the entire geographical range of the species, but especially in the Northeast, and even more so in New England. As an outgrowth of my early searches, in August 1995, timber framer and architect friend Jack Sobon of Windsor, MA, and I measured with his transit a conspicuously tall white pine in Mohawk Trail State Forest. We later named it the Saheda Pine, for a Mohawk ambassador murdered by the Pocumtucks in the late 1600s. Saheda’s death set off a war between the Mohawks and Pocumtucks that effectively eliminated the Pocumtucks as a functioning tribe in Massachusetts. Since at the time Saheda was on a mission of peace, I thought it appropriate to name the tall pine in his honor.

With crosschecking measurements, Jack and I got the amazing height of 160.0 feet, making the tree the tallest we had yet measured in Massachusetts. Jack recorded a circumference of 10 feet 8½ inches at 4.5 feet above the base. Eventually, the Jake Swamp tree, also in MTSF, proved taller. In 1998, Will Blozan, President of the Native Tree Society and an arborist, climbed and tape-drop-measured Saheda to 158.3 feet. In comparison, Jake was measured to 158.6 feet. Why had Saheda’s height dropped from 160.0 between 1995 and 1998?

Saheda splits into two trunks near the top and according to Will has at least six prominent tops. In his 1998 visit, if I recall correctly, Will measured the trunk on the downhill side. The uphill top is now the taller and may have been then as well. I doubt it, but we don’t know. The crown also may have sustained damage, a more probable answer. Will climbed Saheda again in 2007 and tape-dropped the tree to a height of 163.4 feet. At that point, Saheda was growing at the net rate of about 7 inches per year for the downhill leader, I presume. I say net, because these trees can sustain crown damage and then grow back.

Since those early measurements, we have measured Saheda at least twice per year – once before and once after the growing season. Here is a comparison of the 1995 measurement and the one completed on November 27, 2016. I’ve included trunk radius and volume calculations and the annual changes.

You’ll note that Saheda’s trunk volume is calculated at 803 ft3. This converts to 9,636 lbs of elemental carbon. At current growth rates, Saheda is adding around 120 lbs of carbon per year. If we add limbs, branches, and twigs, this figure can be increased by approximately 5%.

How Exceptional is Saheda?

Today, there are many white pines in New England with girths over 12 feet, but most grow in fields, in cemeteries, or other places where light is abundant down to almost ground level. These pines branch low and are bushy in form. Their short trunks are fat and can reach girths of 15 feet or a little more. However, these field-grown pines do not have the form that the timber profession values.

By contrast, stand-grown forms, shaped by competition, have more slender trunks and grow taller. These pines reaching 12 feet or more in girth are encountered only infrequently, and are virtually non-existent on poor pine sites. So, based on my experience, a girth of 12 feet is an important threshold for a stand-grown tree to reach. Some statistics will illustrate this.

Today in all of Mohawk Trail State Forest, I have measured 9 stand-grown pines reaching the 12-foot threshold. Two of these are now dead. In Monroe State Forest, I’ve measured five. Bryant Homestead has five, Ice Glen has two, and a private stand in Shelburne Falls has two. There are a few places where a single originally stand-grown pine has made it to 12 feet around, but when we consider the number of mature pines across our landscape, the probability of a stand-grown pine reaching a circumference of 12 feet is extremely small. We can legitimately celebrate those that do. Let’s now look at height.

Currently, in the Northeast, Pennsylvania has four sites with 160 footers. Massachusetts has four sites. New Hampshire has one. However, there are only six pines we know of reaching to 170 feet in the entire Northeast.

Based on our searches, there is only one other white pine in the Northeast that combines a height of 170 feet or more with a girth of 12 feet or more. It is the Seneca Pine in Cook Forest State Park, Pennsylvania, and it is over 300 years old. By contrast, Saheda is slightly under 200. The full list of 170-footers in the Northeast follows:

Is it likely that there are a few other 170-footers in the Northeast? Yes, but so far, we have not confirmed any, and it isn’t for a lack of searching. We have measured all the big pines in iconic sites like Hearts Content and Anders Run in PA; Hemenway State Forest, and the Bradford Pines in NH; Ice Glen and Bryant Homestead in MA, the Ordway and Bowdoin College Pines in ME, and so on. They harbor no 170s.

Realistically, there may be one or two 170-footers in New Hampshire on private property, but they are not accessible to the public. When last measured, two were slightly over 166 feet. Elsewhere, New York’s Adirondacks is a slim possibility, but so far just shy of 160 feet is our best in that region, and that tree has since lost crown. The current NY champ is the Grandmother Tree in Pack Forest at roughly 155.6 feet. Connecticut once had a 172-footer, measured by Jack Sobon, in the Cathedral Pines stand in Cornwall, CT. However, those flagship pines blew down in a microburst in July 1989. So far as we know, there was only the one 170-footer.

What about Vermont? Many people expect tall pines in the Green Mountain State, but I have barely broken 150 feet there, and only once. White pines don’t do well in Rhode Island and New Jersey. That leaves Maine, whose state tree is the eastern white pine.

My best in Maine is 152 feet, an old growth specimen in the Ordway Pines in Norway, Maine. However, there are reports of a 168-footer north of Baxter State Park, but the odds of that one panning out are very small. The common method of height measurement for these trees is subject to sizable error, and I’ll be surprised if it is even 150 feet. We’ll know next year. Kevin Martin, New Hampshire’s champion tree program coordinator and American Forest National Cadre member, is planning to go up to Maine and measure it using the right methods.


A Different Method of Comparing


Another way to look at Saheda is through the State’s champion tree competition. The champion of a species is the one that scores highest on the following formula.

Points = height (ft) + circumference (in) + 1/4th the average crown-spread (ft)

The table below gives the top seven single-trunk pines that we have measured. 

You’ll notice that the heights of the two Howland Cemetery pines are considerably less than the others. The cemetery pines have lots of space around them, and they branch lower, except where pruned. They have larger girths that give them advantages over stand-grown trees in the competition since circumference is weighted 12 to 1 over height in the formula.




Let’s see some images of Saheda. The first one shows the big tree’s columnar trunk without reference objects.

The Saheda White Pine

Let’s now put in a couple of people for reference, American Forests Vice President for Communications Lea Sloan, and my wife Monica.

Lea Sloan(L), Monica Leverett at Saheda Pine
The next photo shows Saheda on the side of Todd Mountain. The arrow points to the tree’s crown.

Saheda, on the mountainside
In this image, you can see about half of the pines in the Elders Grove. There are 28 pines, which are all that remain of a stand that began growing about 190 years ago. An old rock wall in the vicinity suggests usage as sheep pasture. Above the lower part of the ridge, the terrain becomes increasingly rough, yet significant trees still grow there.

As a brief digression, in the mid-1990s, Drs. Tom Wessels and Rick Van de Poll visited me to see what I was making all the fuss about. It took them a while to get a perspective on the site and look for an explanation. We jointly measured an old growth white ash to nearly 148 feet in height, an American beech to 137, several sugar maples eclipsing 130 feet, and so on. But the white pines lower on the ridge continually reminded us which species is the king of the New England’s forests.

By the way, a 125-foot red maple grows only feet away from Saheda. It is hardly noticeable; and slightly farther away, a large northern red oak breaks 118 feet. Other conspicuous hardwoods in the vicinity range from 100 to about 115 feet, but the pines thrust their crowns far above the hardwood canopy.

Finally, we see Jared Lockwood’s aerial view of Saheda’s crown thrust far above the surrounding hardwoods:

                                   Saheda                (photo by Jared Lockwood)


Concluding Comments 


Today across New England, as is true for most of the Northeast and Midwest (except in wilderness areas, and national and some state parks), managed forests are maintained in an artificially young condition. Short-term economic considerations shape the thinking of forest managers, and to gain public acceptance, the health=youth paradigm is heavily pushed. Older trees are seen along roadways, in city parks and cemeteries; but forests receiving some form of management seldom exceed 100 years in age. As a consequence, older forests like those in MTSF take on special importance. Pockets of old growth and mature second growth with exceptionally big trees serve to remind us of what our early forests looked like and what their species are engineered to achieve, growth- and age-wise. In the case of Saheda and the other pines in the Elders Grove, we are seeing what can grow back in time. These huge pines are ecologically and aesthetically in their prime. And one of them, Saheda, belongs to the very exclusive 12 x 170 club. Saheda, the tree and the man, are symbols of a colorful past: a time when the Iroquois Confederacy dominated much of the Northeast, and the white pine was the timber king. We can take pride in knowing that one of the very best examples of this noble species grows right here, rooted in Massachusetts soil. 

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Appendix: Measuring Saheda

On November, 27th, 2016, using an LTI TruPulse 200X laser-measuring device, I measured the white pine in Mohawk Trail State Forest that we have named Saheda. The 200X is a top of the line product and is replacing LTI’s long time signature product the Impulse 200LR. The infrared laser in the 200X has an advertised accuracy of +/- 4 centimeters to a clear target. My particular instrument has an accuracy of +/- 1.86 centimeters based on 80 trials to targets within 100 feet. The 80 TruPulse measurements were compared to those obtained from a class-2 red beam laser with an accuracy of +/- 1.5 millimeters.

In setting up to begin measuring, I first located a spot where I could clearly see Saheda’s top and base. The straight-line distance and angle from my eye to Saheda’s top were then measured. The instrument does both measurements at the same time and returns the height of the target above my eye level. Internally, the 200X applies the following formula:

                        H = Lsin(A)


H = height above eye level
L = straight-line distance from eye to top
A = angle from eye to top

Keeping the eye in the same horizontal plane, this process is repeated for the height from a reflective target near the base up to eye level. Then the two components of height are added together plus the offset from the reflector to the mid-elevation of the base. This method is superior to the traditional Tangent Method employing tape and clinometer and built-in routines of many hypsometers. Had that method been used, the formula would have been:

                      H = Dtan(A)


H = height above eye level
D = straight-line, level distance from eye to trunk
A = angle from eye to top

However, to be accurate, the Tangent Method assumes that the target is positioned vertically over the end of the baseline, which is typically taken level from eye to the trunk. The assumption of verticality is seldom fulfilled for large old trees. A complete explanation of these height measuring methods can be obtained in the American Forests Champion Tree-Measuring Guidelines Handbook.

What about instrument error? Laser distance error was discussed above. That leaves the angle. The TruPulse’s tilt sensor has an advertised accuracy of +/- 1/10th of a degree. Again, my instrument performs better. It has an accuracy of +/- 1/15th of a degree. Laser Tech acknowledges that the 200X usually performs better than the specifications state. Their policy is intentionally conservative in advertising each instrument’s accuracy.

To compute accuracy limits for a 200X measurement, we can use the approximating formula:

                        E = Lcos(A)A + sin(A)∆L

E = measurement error expressed in units of distance
L = measured distance to target (straight line distance from eye to target)
A = measured angle to target (eye to target)
A = assumed angle error expressed in radians
L = assumed distance error in unit of measurement used, e.g. feet or meters

In actual field measurements, even though we may compute an error range based on our instrument readings, the biggest problem is usually hitting the right target. This requires some explanation. The laser beam is not focused to a point. The TruPulse 200X beam is elliptical in shape. At 100 feet, it spreads to 2.8 feet x 3.2 feet. The 3.2-ft dimension is along the line across the eyes. The actual area covered by the laser beam at 100 feet is


This means that any object within this 7 ft2 is a potential target.

At 200 feet, the spread covers 14ft2, and so on. The TruPulse also has a gate function that allows the instrument to ignore returns from bounces closer than a specified distance, which can be changed foot at a time. This feature allows us to filter out returns from nearby branches, twigs, and leaves, i.e. foreground clutter. So, with the gate, we can work our way into the immediate region of the intended target, but returns can still be received for other than the desired target if there are twigs in the immediate vicinity within the elliptical beam shape.

As previously mentioned, for a target 200 feet away, the window area seen by the laser is 14 ft2. Bounces from each target acquired within the area defined by the spreading beam and beyond the gate value are returned along with a strength value. The strongest signal is reported on the display. Therefore a nearer, lower target beyond the gate setting may give a stronger signal than a more distant higher one. To minimize these undesired returns, there is a 200X feature that selects the farthest target within the beam, but it is not always clear how this feature works in combination with the strength of signal evaluation. If two returns have approximately the same signal strength, the return from the more distant signal will be selected. But if the more distant signal is weak, then the display may report the stronger signal of the closer target. So, on complex tree crowns with multiple targets, one often spends a fair amount of time before the highest target is satisfactorily confirmed. That was exactly the case with Saheda on my latest measurement.

I finally confirmed 129.1 feet above eye level, 38.8 feet below eye level (to a shiny metal tag on the trunk), and 3.1 feet from the tag to average base elevation. These three numbers add exactly to 171.0 feet. I confirmed the 129.1-foot return three separate times. The 38.8-foot shot was very easy to confirm because the target was clear and there was no nearby clutter.

It is often difficult to hit the absolute tip of a twig, because the returned signal can be weaker. This means that the true height of a tree may be an inch or two higher than the highest value reported on the display. The consequence of this is that I can state with a high degree of confidence that Saheda is not less than 171 feet tall.

I should explain that the ideal measuring situation is for the target to be framed against the sky. The pointed tops of slim conifers seen against the sky are ideal targets. However, most trees are not so cooperative. In the case of Saheda, as two of the photos show, the high point of the crown is on the uphill side. I could aim at the highest-appearing sprig and get returns from it and nearby sprigs, eventually replicating the 129.1-foot return.

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