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072512 big larch

The largest Western larch in the country, located at Seeley Lake, towers over visitors in a photograph from 2007.

SEELEY LAKE – The largest Western larch in the land is a giant, standing 153 feet over the placid waters of Seeley Lake in a quiet, shady grove.

Visiting the tree is akin to a quest and standing in its presence, where the air is fresh and light, brings one a sense of serenity.

In a Gaia sort of way, the swaying larch seems to know its place in the forest, the timeless giant that it is.

“I don’t think it has ever been aged precisely, but some estimates place it at 1,000 years,” said Andrew Larson, an assistant professor of ecology at the University of Montana. “It’s very old and it’s the biggest Western larch in the country.”

For perspective, when the “Seeley Lake Giant” sprang from the earth as a fragile seedling, the Danes were sacking Canterbury and taking the archbishop hostage. “Beowulf” was being published by its anonymous author and the Italian Pope Sergius IV was on his deathbed.

As large and distinguished as the old larch is, Larson thinks there’s a bigger tree awaiting discovery in northwest Montana’s vast tracts of wild and remote lands.

In a matter of weeks, he’ll set off on a routine expedition into the Bob Marshall Wilderness to find that tree. His destination lies near the banks of the South Fork of the Flathead River, not far from its confluence with the White River.

It’s in the heart of one of the nation’s largest intact ecosystems, and in a place this big, a single tree can be a hard thing to find.

“We found a few trees a couple of years ago that weren’t as big in diameter as the biggest one here at Seeley Lake, but they were really tall,” Larson said. “If you put all the dimensions together, they may bump the Seeley Lake tree off the list.”

The “list” to which Larson refers is the Big Tree Registry maintained by American Forests, a conservation group advocating for the protection and expansion of America’s forests.

The Big Tree Program looks to locate, appreciate and protect the nation’s largest trees. As many as 750 champions are crowned each year as old kings fade away and new ones take their place.

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“Big trees generate huge dividends in terms of cleaning our air and water and providing habitat for wildlife,” said Scott Steen, CEO of American Forests. “They are ecosystems in and of themselves, supporting entire food chains of creatures from the microscopic to the massive.”

To make the cut on the Big Tree Registry, the tree’s dimensions are measured in detail. The circumference of its trunk, its height and the spread of its crown are tallied to score the tree’s total points.

With a trunk 22 feet around, a height of 153 feet and a crown spread of 34 feet, the Seeley Lake Giant, better known as “Gus” in some circles, scores 426 points. It’s a hard number to beat, but Larson thinks he knows of something bigger.

“We were there (on the South Fork) on a recreation trip, but we didn’t have lasers and tapes to measure the trees,” Larson said of his last visit. “This time, we’ll be in there taking measurements. We’ll search for the area and try to find some of the biggest trees and try to compare them with the Seeley Lake tree.”

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If the new tree exists as Larson believes, it must top the Seeley Lake tree by several points. When two trees score within five points of each other, they are listed as co-champions, and champions must be measured every 10 years to maintain their status.

It was a lack of measurement that cost the old champion Western larch its title, according to Sheri Shannon, the national Big Tree Program coordinator in Washington, D.C.

“The former champion was nominated in 1995,” Shannon said. “It was dethroned because it wasn’t nominated after 1999. We went a couple of years, actually, without a champion Western larch being on the registry, until this one came along.”

The Seeley Lake Giant officially made the list in March 2011 when Helen Smith and Micha Krebs nominated it. But the tree has been a local legend for years, drawing visitors to its mighty trunk.

“That forest there, there’s a really high density of very old and very large larch tees,” said Larson. “It’s thought that Native American burning practices helped that forest persist for so long. It’s thought they’d start periodic, low-intensity fires.

“We don’t have any data on fire history or possible ignition sources, but some of the sites we’re working in the Bob Marshall, we see a lot of those similar attributes. We’ve cored trees that were 750 years old in there.”

Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at 523-5260 or at martin.kidston@missoulian.com.

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