Giant tree 'twins' flourish for centuries in remote northern valley

·7 min read
Rod O'Connell stands next to the big yellow birch tree near Portage Lakes.
Rod O'Connell stands next to the big yellow birch tree near Portage Lakes.

(Submitted by Rod O'Connell - image credit)

Two retired foresters from the Bathurst area have identified the largest known specimens in the province of two different kinds of trees, in an area they've nominated for provincial protection.

Rod O'Connell and Karl Branch found a yellow birch tree measuring 145 centimetres in diameter and a black ash tree measuring 69 cm in diameter while walking along one of the three Portage Lakes, about 60 kilometres south of Campbellton.

They first noticed the big trees about 10 years ago, O'Connell recalled. At the time, the men were taking part in an annual Christmas bird count in the Upsalquitch Valley along Route 180, also known as the Road to Resources.

But it wasn't until O'Connell's daughter gave him a copy of the second edition of David Palmer's Great Trees of New Brunswick as a Christmas present that he decided they deserved further investigation.

"I looked in the book and I said, 'Oh, my! Our trees up there might be bigger,'" said O'Connell.

"So, this December we took a measuring tape and an instrument to measure the height. … And sure enough, they were bigger."

Karl Branch stands next to a yellow birch tree at Portage Lakes that is estimated to be over 400 years old.
Karl Branch stands next to a yellow birch tree at Portage Lakes that is estimated to be over 400 years old.

The yellow birch at Portage Lakes is not quite the tallest known. O'Connell measured it at 20 metres. And the book lists one at Ayers Lake that's 28.5 metres.

But its trunk is almost 50 per cent wider than the next largest birch Palmer has documented. There are three in the book that are each 1 metre in diameter.

"It's just absolutely amazing and exciting," said the author, who may soon have enough material for a third edition.

"I keep getting calls and emails from people saying, 'Oh, I've got a tree bigger than any in your book. You should come and look at this horse chestnut. It was planted back in 1902 by so-and-so. And did you know about this white spruce? It just keeps on going."

O'Connell said he may know of a balsam fir that beats the record, too. It's located on the Nepisiguit Mi'gmaq Trail. He plans to measure it this spring.

Palmer estimated the yellow birch tree at Portage Lakes may be five centuries old.

"It's obviously been there for a while. Yellow birch is not a fast growing tree. It puts on a few millimetres of growth a year."

"I wouldn't hesitate to say it's maybe four or five hundred years old."

Palmer said it looks to be in good condition and might even live another 200 years.

Yellow birch are "one of the iconic trees of the Acadian forest," said Palmer.

"In mature stands," he said, you can usually find "a good sprinkling" of them.

They're the longest lived of the three birch species in the province. White birch are old at about 100 years, he said. And gray birch typically only lasts 30 to 40 years.

Karl Branch stands next to the large black ash tree found near Portage Lakes
Karl Branch stands next to the large black ash tree found near Portage Lakes

O'Connell estimates the black ash at Portage Lakes is about 150 years old.

He measured it to be 20.75 metres tall.

Palmer's book has one in Exmoor, north of Metepenagiag, that's 24 metres tall, but it's only 55 cm in diameter. The one O'Connell and Branch found is 14 cm wider.

"These are two exceptional trees for sure," said Branch.

"Just thinking that this birch tree was growing on that site probably before permanent European settlement in North America is difficult to envisage. The odds of a tree surviving all those seasons along with the wind storms, droughts, insect epidemics, fungal attacks, forest fires and more recently logging, are astonishing."

Besides their size, he's also surprised by how close they are to each other.

"They're only 20 feet apart," said Branch, "— practically twins."

Branch didn't want to reveal the exact location of the trees because he's concerned it might put them at risk.

"There's always a danger when you bring too much attention to the trees then people want to go see them and destroy what you're trying to protect in the first place."

They've been able to survive there for so long, he said, because of "a combination of excellently adapted genes and lots of luck."

For one thing, the land is "part of a wetland complex," so the trees are not easily accessible for harvesting and "it wouldn't have been easy ground to work on."

This black ash tree near Portage Lakes is thought to be about 150 years old.
This black ash tree near Portage Lakes is thought to be about 150 years old.

For another, the forest make-up in the area is primarily hardwood, while softwood was traditionally sought for logging.

"It's really only the last 20 to 30 years we've been actively harvesting hardwoods," said Branch.

"So, it's been kind of ignored, basically."

Palmer noted that yellow birch does have commercial use in high-end furniture and flooring.

He described the wood as "beautiful" with a "rich, yellowish brown" colour.

But over the long span of these trees' lives there would have been greater threats than forestry, said Branch.

"Logging is relatively recent compared to the age of these trees," he said.

"They really survived there because they're partially sheltered in the valley bottom. And they're growing obviously on a rich site. So that all contributed. And being a wetland complex there's a lower fire risk of fire. That would have been a much higher risk to them in the long term. They're sheltered from the wind storms … These trees lucked out and just germinated in a great spot, obviously."

Owl surveys are done in the Portage Lakes area each spring, said O'Connell. This barred owl was photographed in December about 50 metres away from the site of the two large trees.
Owl surveys are done in the Portage Lakes area each spring, said O'Connell. This barred owl was photographed in December about 50 metres away from the site of the two large trees.

O'Connell and Branch have submitted a proposal to protect the land that the trees are on.

The trees themselves are worth protecting, said Branch, but he also sees them as part of a bigger picture.

"It's the whole idea of allowing for older habitat to develop," he said.

"It shows us what potentially the forest could look like."

Big trees are becoming rarer in New Brunswick forests, said Branch, due to "more intensive forest management activities."

"Short" harvesting cycles of 50 to 60 years don't allow most trees to "attain their full ecological potential," he said.

Barred owls like large old trees for habitat.
Barred owls like large old trees for habitat.

O'Connell said the Portage Lakes area has good habitat for barred owls.

He participates in owl surveys there from April to mid-May.

"It's sort of a protected spot along the lakes," said O'Connell. "Therefore we have a tendency to find more mature-forest-type birds like the black-backed woodpecker, which is fairly rare."

Branch said other birds of prey use the large branches of "veteran" trees for perching and nesting. A few types of ducks and owls use their cavities for breeding. And mammals such as pine martens and fishers make dens in them to birth and raise their young.

Unlike other ducks, wood ducks prefer to nest in cavities of old trees.
Unlike other ducks, wood ducks prefer to nest in cavities of old trees.

"Clearly it's a very rich site and should be protected," said Palmer.

The provincial Department of Natural Resources and Energy Development acknowledged the Portage Lakes area is of "known interest for conservation." Part of the area is already protected.

The department said O'Connell and Branch's nomination is one of 111 that have been submitted for the latest round of possible "nature legacy" protection.

It said each site will be considered by a team of biologists, foresters and geologists.

Candidate areas for protection as shown on an interactive map on the Natural Resources and Energy Development website.
Candidate areas for protection as shown on an interactive map on the Natural Resources and Energy Development website.

Those who submitted nominations prior to the most recent Jan. 31 deadline can expect a status update by "this spring," said department spokesperson Nick Brown.

After the initial screening, said Brown, proposed new protected areas will be released for review by First Nations, industry rights holders and the public before the government makes any final decisions.

Since November, DNRED has opened comments on possible protection of more than 150,000 hectares, said Brown.

He said two more batches of sites should be released in April and June.