FISH CREEK - There is a tree here in Mineral County that stands more than twice as high as Missoula's historic Wilma Building.
The aptly named "Big Pine" is the largest known ponderosa pine in Montana and third-largest in the United States. Its surprisingly unblemished red-orange skin belies its age, which would be roughly 100 years older than George Washington if he were not dead.
Big Pine lives on - quite healthily, in fact. But the rushing stream that has been its companion for more than 350 years is getting a bit too cozy for Chet Crowser's comfort.
A river recreation manager for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Crowser pointed Wednesday to Fish Creek's most recent advances.
The top of the bank, 9 or 10 feet high here, is within a short stride of Big Pine's trunk. For the first time some of the tree's root system is exposed, and two iron posts that bear a cable to discourage gawkers from, say, hugging the big guy are sloughing streamward.
A considerable chunk of natural rock riprap from 10 years ago, man's last attempt to slow the erosion, breaks water 20 feet out in the streambed.
"Particularly with the high flows we had this spring, the creek is starting to undercut the bank adjacent to the tree," Crowser said.
He was high above Fish Creek on this sodden November day, but Crowser had stood on this same bank in May and gotten a clear idea of the threat as the water surged at his and Big Pine's feet.
That spurred FWP and the Lolo National Forest into action. Starting in August, they've collaborated on a plan to stabilize some 70 feet of the stream bank by constructing an upstream logjam to divert the water.
As part of the project, some of the considerable bank that has been lost will be re-created "to give the tree a little bit more of a soil base," Crowser said.
Once the project receives the green light, a contractor will begin work this winter, possibly in December, and could finish in a week if the weather cooperates.
"We'd like to beat the spring flows," Crowser said. "Hopefully we can get in there and do something before the water comes and starts hammering away again."
FWP is seeking public comment on the draft environmental assessment of the project through Dec. 5. The state agency will foot the estimated $10,000 bill, most of which will go toward hiring an excavator.
Streams like Fish Creek being the dynamic things they are, the logjam won't be a permanent solution, Crowser said.
"Hopefully it'll last maybe 10 or 20 or even 30 years, if we really luck out," he said. "We're not wanting this to be a temporary fix, meaning one or two years."
Some may question the wisdom of altering stream channels, which is not something the FWP takes lightly, said Crowser. A lot of agencies must be on board with the plan, including the U.S. Forest Service, which owns the land the tree sits on; the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, which leases the rest of the campground to Fish, Wildlife and Parks; the Army Corps of Engineers, which must approve any streambed alteration; and Mineral County, which is most interested in the effects on the few homes downstream.
Fish in Fish Creek should applaud the logjam solution.
"It's becoming more common to do projects like this, where you're utilizing woody debris as opposed to going in and using more of a riprap type of approach, because it maintains more of the habitat values for fisheries in the area," Crowser said.
The biggest trees of America are catalogued and ranked by American Forests, a nonprofit conservation organization based in Washington, D.C.
Montana has two trees on the national register, one near Seeley Lake, nicknamed "Gus," which is the country's largest tamarack. Big Pine ranks third among ponderosa pines, the state tree of Montana. California has the two leaders.
Helen Smith, ecologist at the U.S. Forest Service's fire sciences lab west of Missoula, is the Montana director for the national big tree registry. She said the Fish Creek pine was nominated in 1982 by Don Wood and Don Campbell, employees of the Lolo National Forest at the time.
At its last measuring in 2005, the pine tree was 194 feet tall - nearly the height of a 20-story building - and had a circumference of 20 feet, 6 inches. Its crown spread was 64 feet.
Trees are ranked on a point basis - height plus circumference in inches plus one-fourth of the crown spread. Thus, Big Pine scores 456 points. The national leader was identified not long ago near Forest Glen, Calif., in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. At 240.5 feet tall and more than 24 feet around at breast height, it scored out at 537 points, edging the previous leader by five.
There may be a bigger ponderosa pine somewhere in Montana, Smith said.
"We have a lot of ground that's not covered and I think, as state coordinator, we haven't been real good at getting the word out there to find and measure trees. Other states are much more aggressive. Mine's kind of tacked on to my job description," she said.
Broadcasting the location of landmark trees, said Smith, is "one of those double-edged swords"
But Big Pine is no secret. It stands less than five miles off Interstate 90, at one end of the Forest Service's Big Pine campground. FWP has an information panel in front of it that was refurbished just this year. Signs on the Fish Creek Road notify travelers of an upcoming "point of interest."
Its immensity isn't readily apparent from the main road, Crowser pointed out. But get closer and the thrill begins.
"It seems like the longer you stand and look at it, the bigger and bigger it gets," he said. "I think it's a good connection to the past. This tree is older than a lot of our national history, so it's interesting to actually see in person and make that connection."
It's also a survivor. The signs of forest fire are visible on nearby mountain slopes. Who knows how many lightning strikes Big Pine has dodged since its youth in the mid-1600s, not to mention the potential ravages of man in the last 150 years?
"We have in our society things that are big, and we're infatuated with that," Smith said. "I think American Forest started the big tree program when things were being lost so quickly during the heyday of logging. They said we need to celebrate and protect some of these large, beautiful trees."
"It's pretty inspiring when you see it," Crowser agreed. "Every time I come out here and look at this thing, it's like, 'Wow, that is one big tree.' There's just something to be said for saving some these resources."
Reporter Kim Briggeman can be reached at 523-5266 or at email@example.com.
Read and comment
To view the draft environmental assessment of the proposal to protect "Big Pine," the state's largest known ponderosa pine, download the file online fwp.mt.gov (click on "public notices") or request a copy by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org; or phone (406) 542-5500.
Direct comments on the draft assessment by mail to FWP, 3201 Spurgin Road, Missoula, MT 59804, or by e-mail to Chet Crowser at email@example.com. Comments must be received no later than 5 p.m. Friday, Dec. 5.