About one mile up the Hermosa Creek Trail, a vista opened straight ahead to reveal a towering ponderosa pine silhouetted against the sky.
“There it is,” said Robert Leverett, a co-founder of the Native Tree Society, an international assemblage held together by disparate interests in trees. “This is a champion tree.”
Leverett, who has a degree in engineering from Georgia Tech, taught computer science and statistics at Holyoke Community College in Massachusetts for 24 years. His passion is pinning down the height of trees within a centimeter and other tree data for scientific research and historical documentation.
“Anywhere I go, I measure trees,” Leverett said during the Hermosa Creek outing Thursday. “It’s compulsive. I’m obsessed.”
Leverett knew about the champion ponderosa from previous visits to Southwest Colorado. But he wanted an exact height, which was obtainable only with the highest-quality laser range finder.
He also wanted precise heights of a blue spruce and a Douglas fir that rise skyward only a few hundred yards from the ponderosa. Both are champion trees, too.
The trees represent the pinnacle of growth of their respective species in the Rocky Mountain biome, which stretches from British Colombia to New Mexico, he said.
“This drainage produces hellish trees,” Leverett said. “I can’t say there aren’t champions in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in New Mexico, but I haven’t found them.”
The tallest trees probably will be found in Colorado because of the climate, he said. The availability of water in the Hermosa Creek drainage makes it a logical habitat, he said.
Accompanying Leverett was Steve Colburn, director of sales for Laser Technology Inc. in Centennial, who came equipped with the latest in laser range finders – an Impulse 200 and a Trupulse 200.
“I’ve been involved with the Native Tree Society for several years,” Colburn said.
He said he gave a tree-measuring workshop at Cook Forest State Park in Pennsylvania not long ago.
All three trees he measured Thursday lived up to expectations, Leverett said. The ponderosa topped out at 160.6 feet, the fir at 160.1 and the blue spruce at 159. All three are still growing, as indicated by a pointed leader rather than a flattened top, which would signal the tree had reached its maximum growth upward.
The height of a tree is important, Leverett said. It indicates the growing potential of a site; it’s an expression of what the tree can do; and it’s a factor in calculating a tree’s volume, which determines how much carbon it can sequester.
“By measuring and recording tree height, we establish a benchmark,” Leverett said. “If a forest is logged every 60 years, we can lose sight of its potential. We’re not against forest management, but there’s a fine line between that and exploitation.”
Three members of Great Old Broads for Wilderness – Executive Director Veronica Egan, Anne Benson and Kristine Johnson – joined Leverett on the hike.
“It was a chance to learn about the local area and maybe see a record tree,” Egan said.
Laurie Swisher, the San Juan National Forest old-growth specialist, was along for a different reason. Data from Leverett’s findings will be included in an agency arboreal database that includes species of a tree, its height, diameter, age and GPS location.
“When we look at climate change, information such as this will show the success of a species along a range,” Swisher said. “We also can spot genetically superior specimens that could produce cones with seeds for reproduction.”
The 400-member Native Tree Society, its website says, is made up of people who celebrate trees through art, poetry, music, science, mythology and medicine.
They are, in short, people who find an intrinsic value in trees, who think they’re good for something other than lumber or shade.
Among the society’s ranks are: an opera mezzo-soprano in New York City who volunteers with a pigeon rescue group; a repentant logger from Kentucky who now has a tree research farm; a Pennsylvania pharmacist; a retired truck driver and machinist from Maine; and a Finland-born German who finds forests a relief from the tundra he knew as a child.
The Native Tree Society, established in 1996, has east and west branches. The society publishes a monthly newsletter that highlights posts by members on scientific and nonscientific issues relating to trees,
If there’s a drawback, it’s that bulletin board posts aren’t available at a central location, Leverett said.
“But we get requests for data for graduate studies or from students doing a thesis, so we know the information is wanted and needed,” Leverett said.