Saturday, 3 July 2010

Tall trees

A century ago, Gippsland settlers stand proudly round a giant tree they have ringbarked.

In 2008, in Tasmania’s southern forests, surveyors found the tallest known tree in Australia today. Standing 101 metres high, it is a magnificent find – higher than any tree we have known about for many decades. It is not, as some reports have suggested, the second tallest tree in the world - there are 16 trees in the US over 110 m in height, let alone 101. But Australia once had much taller trees.

On 21st February 1872, Victorian government surveyor and Inspector of State Forests William Ferguson reported to Mr Clement Hodgkinson, Assistant Commissioner of State Forests, on his inspection of “areas that had not been penetrated by the timber splitter or the woodcutter”: 

Some places, where the trees are fewer and at a lower altitude, the timber is much larger in diameter, averaging from 6 to 10 feet and frequently trees to 15 feet in diameter are met with on alluvial flats near the river. These trees average about ten per acre: their size, sometimes, is enormous. Many of the trees that have fallen by decay and by bush fires measure 350 feet in length, with girth in proportion. In one instance I measured with the tape line one huge specimen that lay prostrate across a tributary of the Watts and found it to be 435 feet from the roots to the top of its trunk. At 5 feet from the ground it measures 18 feet in diameter. At the extreme end where it has broken in its fall, it (the trunk) is 3 feet in diameter. This tree has been much burnt by fire, and I fully believe that before it fell it must have been more than 500 feet high. As it now lies it forms a complete bridge across a narrow ravine.

In other words, Ferguson measured the tree (in an area near Healesville) from its base to the point where it had broken off in its fall to be 435 feet (133 m) and did not measure its crown. Even at 435 feet, there is no tree on Earth known ever to have surpassed it. However, the information that the tree was still 3 feet in diameter at this point supports the estimate that the tree had been over 500 feet (152 m) high. This tree has become known as “the Ferguson tree”.

The tree found in Tasmania, like the Ferguson tree, is a mountain ash, although in that State they use the less impressive name “swamp gum”. Mountain ash (Eucalyptus regnans – monarch of the eucalypts) is still today the world’s tallest hardwood and the world’s tallest flowering plant, but there were several nineteenth century trees any one of which, if alive today, would be the tallest tree in the world, and the largest of all was the Ferguson tree - listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the tallest recorded tree.

The tallest Californian redwood currently standing is the newly-discovered ‘Hyperion’ of the Redwood State Park, standing 115.55 m tall (379 feet). The tallest North American tree ever known was a Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) measured at 400 feet (122 m). Unlike Australia’s Ferguson Tree, the giant Douglas fir was not professionally measured, so must remain a tantalizing anecdote.

Other Australian trees of which we have reliable records from the nineteenth century are: 

  • A tree at Mt Baw Baw measured by surveyor G W Robinson prior to 1889 to be 470 feet (143 m). 

  • The Centennial Exhibition Tree from the Menzies Creek area, which was measured after felling at 400 feet (122 m). This tree was felled so that its spectacular trunk could be dismantled and then reassembled to form a display in the 1888 centennial exhibition in Melbourne. 
There are good photographs of this tree in the State Library of Victoria.
  • Fallen tree in the Dandenong ranges measured by surveyor David Boyle in 1862 to be 392 feet (119 m). Again the tree had broken in its fall, and Boyle estimated that the top would be another 30 feet, giving a total height of about 420 feet (128 m).

Trees which were huge but which would not top the highest remaining trees in North America are: 

  • Thorpdale tree in South Gippsland, felled in 1880 and then accurately measured by surveyor G Cornthwaite to be 375 feet high (114 m) 

  • Olongolah tree near Beech Forest in the Otways, which was measured by an unnamed Colac Shire Engineer on an unknown date prior to 1900 to be 347 feet (106 m). 

  • The “Neerim Giant” was measured by a government surveyor to be 325 feet (99 m). It had a broken top, however, and must once have been considerably taller. It was destroyed by fire early in the 20th century.

In 1939 in Toorongo Forest, Noojee, another fallen tree was measured by Inspector of Forests, F G Gerraty to be 348 feet (106 m).

It is a source of shame for Australians that our forefathers destroyed giant trees which, if they were living today, would be wonders of the world. Many huge trees were destroyed, and for many there are no measurements. In some cases, the trees were cut down and simply burnt, often in places so inaccessible that they would never be useful for grazing.

Trees were hunted down, and the challenge of destroying these ancient giants was taken on with gusto. Old photographs of people in the forest almost always show an axe present. It was as if this was a statement of manhood against the uncivilised immensity of the forest.

What does it take to have tall trees grow? One factor is time. Hundreds of years are needed for the trees to grow, but this is after millennia of nutrients building up as trees grow and decay. Another factor is a large area of forest. Trees grow upwards when competing for light, and can grow very tall when protected from wind and storm by a large number of other tall trees.

Might there be still taller trees out there? Perhaps the tallest tree in the world? Who knows? In the past few years we have discovered several new species of trees in East Gippsland, the Wollemi Pine in the Blue Mountains, and the world’s oldest known tree on Mt Read in Tasmania. And now we have found a tree which tops any tree found in Australia for many decades. We are still finding things in the Australian bush that we do not expect.

But we have lost so much already. In the nineteenth century people knew no better, but we know otherwise now. We know that logging causes a loss of water yield for up to 150 years, we know that there are very few people employed by the industry, we know that the industry enjoys substantial public subsidies, we know that endangered species are killed by logging. And we know, following studies by Professor Brendan Mackey and his team at ANU that for each hectare we log we lose an average of 1000 tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere – after taking replanting into account. We know there are ready and viable alternatives, including the use of plantation timber. We know that the alienation of our nation from its land is causing immense environmental and personal damage, with logging providing the most dramatic illustration.

It is time to stop.

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  1. Great article. The Tasmanian tree you mention is actually 99.6m high. Foresty Tasmania got the measurement wrong intially and it was not until it was climbed that the exact measurement was found.

    Still an incredible tree and shows we continue to be largely unaware of what lies out in some of our wild Tasmanian forests. Yes, there may be even taller ones out there yet to be found. Sadly many the slightly smaller cousins of these giants are up for logging under Tasmania's archaic logging practices.

  2. Thanks, Adam. I did not know about the remeasurement. It's past belief that we are still logging these trees.

  3. It certainly is beyond belief, but if anything, the logging practices in BC, Canada, home to some of the tallest Douglas fir trees in the world, are even more destructive I'm ashamed to say.

  4. It certainly is beyond belief, but if anything, the logging practices in BC, Canada, home to some of the tallest Douglas fir trees in the world, are even more destructive I'm ashamed to say.