National Geographic : 2012 Dec
• broken or unbroken, the trees were hardly worth cutting. Sequoia National Park was established in 1890, and automobile tourism soon showed that giant sequoias were worth more alive. One thing to remember about them, as Steve Sillett explained to me during a conversation amid the trees, is that they withstand months of frigid conditions. eir preferred habitat is severely wintry, so they must be strong while frozen. Snow piles up around them; it weights their limbs while the temperature wobbles in the teens. ey handle the weight and the cold with aplomb, as they handle so much else. " ey're a snow tree," he said. " at's their thing." Among the striking discoveries made by Sil- lett's team is that even the rate of growth of a big tree, not just its height or total volume, can in- crease during old age. An elderly monster like the President actually lays down more new wood per year than a robust young tree. It puts that wood around the trunk, which grows wider, and into the limbs and the branches, which grow thicker. is nding contradicts a long-held premise in forest ecology---that wood production de- creases during the old age of a tree. at prem- ise, which has justi ed countless management decisions in favor of short-rotation forestry, may hold true for some kinds of trees in some places, but not for giant sequoias (or other tall species, including coast redwoods). Sillett and his team have disproved it by doing something that earlier forest ecologists didn't: climbing the big trees---climbing all over them---and measur- ing them inch by inch. With blessings and permits from the Na- tional Park Service, they performed such high- altitude metrics on the President. is was part of a larger study, a long-term monitoring proj- ect on giant sequoias and coast redwoods called the Redwoods and Climate Change Initiative. Sillett's group put a line over the President's crown, rigged climbing ropes into position (with special protectors for the tree's cambium), donned harnesses and helmets, and went up. ey measured the trunk at di erent heights; they measured limbs, branches, and burls; they counted cones; they took core samples using a sterilized borer. en they fed the numbers through mathematical models informed by ad- ditional data from other giant sequoias. at's how they came to know that the President con- tains at least 54,000 cubic feet of wood and bark. And that's how they detected that the old beast, at about the age of ,, is still growing quickly. It's still inhaling great breaths of CO and bind- ing the carbon into cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin in a growing season interrupted by six months of cold and snow. Not bad for an oldster. at's the remarkable thing about them, Sil- lett told me. "Half the year, they're not growing aboveground. ey're in the snow." ey grow bigger than their biggest compeer, the coast red- wood, even with a shorter growing season. It was tting, therefore, that Michael (Nick) Nichols made his portrait of the President in snow. Nick and Jim Campbell Spickler, an expert climber and rigger, came up with a plan. With a crew of assistants and climbers drawn heavily from Steve Sillett's team, they arrived in mid- February, when the snowbanks along the plowed road were 12 feet high. ey rigged ropes on the President and on a tall nearby tree, both for human ascent and for raising cameras. They waited through blue skies, slushy conditions, and fog until the weather changed and the snow came again and the moment was right. ey got the shot. (Actually there were many individual shots, assembled as you see on the poster.) By the time I showed up, they were packing to leave. Nick had spent more than two weeks com- manding this operation, composing the im- age and engineering it from the ground. But before the last ropes came down, he wanted to climb the tree himself. Not to take photos, he explained. "Just to say goodbye." He put on a harness and a helmet, clipped onto a rope, t his feet into the loops, clutched the ascender, and up he went. n Society Grant This project was funded in part by your National Geographic Society membership. We thank Sequoia National Park for its generous cooperation in the production of this article.