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Climbers Brian French and Will Koomjian ascend the Brummit fir in Coos County Oregon. It is the National Champion Douglas fir and stands 335 feet tall. (Freesolo Photography / Sean O'Connor)

Climbing the Tallest Trees

A select group of adventurers climb the world’s tallest trees to learn more about the wildlife that lives on the highest branches

It is possible to measure trees with laser range-finders, but precise instruments cost thousands of dollars and resemble clunky TV cameras from the 1980s—not ideal equipment to haul into a remote old-growth forest. As a result, climbing the trees and measuring them with a simple fishing line dropped to the ground is the most effective way to officially measure a tree.

As with any superlative, there is often conflict and competition over the title of largest tree. Oregonians recently mourned the loss of the “Klootchy Creek Giant,” blown down in a storm in 2007. It was the national co-Champion Sitka Spruce, and now Washington State proudly holds the exclusive Champion Sitka title for one of its trees. There was a certain amount of playful bitterness expressed toward Washington on Oregon's radio programs and blogs in the months following the demise of Oregon's green giant.

Bill Price, a nature-loving banker cum firefighter who is now retired, volunteers to help ATG study arboreal fauna. The second day after we arrived at the study site, he spotted bird droppings—globs of dried, white goop—on a fern near the base of one of the giants. His bright blue eyes lit up. To be inspired by feces is a rare event, but in this case it was well justified. Where there are droppings, there are animals. We spent the better part of the day trying to fix a rope to the tree in question to look for a possible Northern spotted owl nest. After several unsuccessful attempts to shoot a bolt over a sturdy limb that would allow us a view of the nesting cavity, we were bested. Price makes note of what the group finds in the trees and collects fecal and nesting samples, such as pine needles and bits of feathers or fur, to send to his colleagues for further study.

One of the scientists who analyze ATG's samples is Eric Forsman, a spotted owl expert and U.S. Forest Service biologist who is based at Oregon State University. He has been studying these old-growth forests for more than 40 years. He told me later, “we cannot duplicate the historic conditions that lead to old growth development ... they’re gone. [These forests], they are storehouses of biodiversity.” According to the conservation group Cascadia Wildlands Project, roughly 92 percent of Oregon’s historical old-growth forests have been logged. The conservation group is trying to get federal wilderness protection for Wassen Creek, the area where I accompanied ATG.

(Loggers are not to blame for all felled trees, however. In the summer of 2007, a woman near Clatskanie, Oregon, cut down the champion Pacific Dogwood tree, 65 feet tall and 5 feet in diameter. It was on her property and looked sickly. A neighbor told her it had a virus. Only later did she realize that she had cut down what represented the zenith of that species. One thing that motivates the ATG team is the malign influence of ignorance.)

Not far from the trees ATG is studying, broad swaths of clear cut formed a no man's land in what was once covered in old-growth forest. From up in the tree we ascended on this trip, though, team member Damien Carré pointed out cheerfully, “This really is a great view. Sometimes, when we’re in these trees, all we can see is clear cut in the horizon.”

An entire mysterious world exists far above the ground. In one of the trees the team rigged, Koomjian found the nest of a red tree vole and Price collected samples of its feces to send to Oregon State University. The red tree vole, a small, copper-hued rodent, spends its entire life in the canopy, the only vole to do so. To help quench its thirst, it licks up water from the condensation that forms on tree needles. (This condensation, incidentally, increases precipitation on the forest floor by 30 percent.) The needles are also the sole food source for the vole. Its feces provide nutrients and bacteria in the canopy. They also give off heat. This combination of heat and nutrients attracts insects, which in turn attract predators like the clouded salamander. On a previous expedition, Price found a male and female clouded salamander—at a record 300 feet high in a massive Douglas fir.

I survey the tree tops from the canopy one last time before descending to the fern-covered ground below. I spin slowly as I descend and my mind spins too, reflecting on these tree climbers' mission and the giants they ascend. My fascination with this special place grows with each foot of elevation lost. These trees are the keystones to many more things. From quixotic inchworms to industrious red tree voles, all find a place somewhere in the tree. And then, before I know it, my feet touch the moist, dark earth.

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