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Finding Oregon's Tallest Trees Gets Help From Technology


Brian French and Will Koomjian love to climb trees. They do it professionally, recreationally and in service to science. Their group “Ascending the Giants” started up about 10 years ago with a mission to scale and document Oregon’s tallest, oldest and biggest trees.

“The superlative trees,” Koomjian called them.

One of the first of these trees they climbed as a group is the Brummit Fir (aka the Doerner Fir) — a 327-foot giant in Coos County, Oregon.

“The Brummit is the tallest Douglas fir in the world, so it’s a tree of global significance,” Koomjian said.

Climb rigger Benjamin Trapanese flies through the trees.

Climb rigger Benjamin Trapanese flies through the trees.

Todd Sonflieth/OPB

Unfortunately, the top 30-40 feet of the Brummit, which was dying back when Ascending the Giants first climbed and measured it in 2008, is now dead. While those dead feet still count toward the total height measurement, the tree’s days as the “champion” are numbered.

“A tree with a dead top can’t get any taller,” French said. The team is now looking for the next-tallest Douglas fir with a live top.

But wandering around the state’s vast forests in search of another “champion” is not anyone’s idea of a good time. Luckily, Ascending the Giants is getting help from the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries (DOGAMI) and a mapping technology known as LiDar.

“LiDar is a new technology for making detailed maps of the surface of the earth,” explains DOGAMI’s chief scientist Ian Madin. “It’s a laser scanning technology that sends out a little pulse of laser light and measures the time that it takes for that pulse to go and bounce off of something and come back.”

Chief scientist Ian Madin and arborist Brian French review LiDar data at DOGAMI.

Chief scientist Ian Madin and arborist Brian French review LiDar data at DOGAMI.

Todd Sonflieth/OPB

The maps that LiDar technology produces are so detailed that when Madin reviewed data from a survey of the Coos County coast range in 2007, he was able to pick out several trees that appeared to reach the 100-meter (328-foot) range.

“I thought that was really cool and I Googled around and found ‘Ascending the Giants’ and I sent them a bunch of locations,” Madin said.

LiDar survey data of southern Oregon's coast range. Dark red dots show trees measuring 100 meters or more.

LiDar survey data of southern Oregon's coast range. Dark red dots show trees measuring 100 meters or more.

Todd Sonflieth/OPB

Since then, French and Koomjian have been checking out Madin’s LiDar discoveries by climbing and literally dropping a measuring tape from their tops. Their tallest fir so far measures 322 feet — 5 feet too short to reach “champion” status. And so the ATG team continues.

“I would say that we’ll keep doing this until we find a champion-tall Douglas fir but the truth is if we find a champion-tall Douglas fir we’re still gonna keep doing this,” Koomjian laughed.

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Most Recent Broadcast: October 12, 2017