No respect: The dreadful state of Washington’s largest tree

Posted 5/15/24

My wife Susan, our pal Elliott, and I drove 130 miles last month to gaze upon Washington's largest tree, the Nolan Creek Cedar. As we neared the colossus at the end of a gravel road, the …

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No respect: The dreadful state of Washington’s largest tree


My wife Susan, our pal Elliott, and I drove 130 miles last month to gaze upon Washington's largest tree, the Nolan Creek Cedar. As we neared the colossus at the end of a gravel road, the 1,500-year-old Western redcedar burst from the ground like a monument to time itself.

Its roots jutted from dark dirt looking not so much like tree parts but rather cylindrical steel buttresses supporting a fluted trunk that split into two trunks 40 feet off the ground. Both trunks split and re-split as they spiraled upward, eventually forming a gnarly candelabra 17 stories high.

The uppermost branches, silhouetted black against a bluebonnet sky, could have been the bony fingers of a skeletal hand beseeching the heavens for kindness, I thought, knowing the tree's grim history with humans from conversations I'd had with Robert Van Pelt.

Van Pelt holds the Guinness World Record for discovering 92 national champion trees — the largest trees of their species in a country. His books on those giants and others are encyclopedic in their detail, replete with poignant illustrations by the author. Copies of his books are among my most valued possessions.

Dating from the 6th century or so, the Nolan Creek Cedar has withstood holocausts and windstorms that cut down legions of nearby giants, said Van Pelt, an affiliate professor of forestry at the University of Washington.

But it wasn't until half a century ago, when the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) approved the clearcutting of trees around the great redcedar, that the giant found itself standing alone against the elements.

The year was 1977. The DNR had green-lighted a timber sale on some of its land near Forks and a pair of logging brothers with the last name of Duncan roamed the property picking trees to be felled. The Nolan Creek Cedar, as it would come to be known, was spared the saw when the brothers identified it as being the largest Thuja plicata in the United States.

Had it not been for its national-champion status, the tree would have been reduced to one of the scores of huge stumps on the DNR land. With the pallor of granite and their uniform shape, the stumps allude to tombstones in a graveyard of trees.

Loggers sawed and sawed and sawed till the national champion stood like the last soldier on a battlefield strewn with fallen comrades. In time the DNR elected to erect a boardwalk to protect the tree's shallow roots from visitors trampling them.

But the walkway's construction crew, in a gross display of stupidity, carelessness or malice, took chainsaws to three immense roots. I found the cuts—rough oval surfaces on the east side of the trunk—and measured them: 3 foot 8 inches, 3 feet 7 inches, and 2 feet 1 inch.

The unforgivable deed left the redcedar with only one living root. Much of the greenery one sees on the tree today isn't cedar foliage but rather the foliage of hemlocks that have seeded in nooks. The tree survives, but barely.

For 20 years I divided my time between journalism and planting thousands of fruit and hardwood trees in Panama. Before that I co-founded a rainforest preserve in Costa Rica. Soon after moving to Port Townsend five months ago, I purchased two acres of forest to donate to the Jefferson Land Trust. I've got a thing for tall woody plants.

That thing kept my eyes glued to the Nolan Creek Cedar for more than two hours, staring at its once-brown trunks bleached silver by the sun, hemlock trees thriving on a struggling host, and those cadaverous branches that brought Christ's crown of thorns to mind.

It led me to don eyeglasses for a better look at the bark that encases a wood that is as aromatic as blossoms and as rot-resistant as railroad ties—the latter a characteristic that simultaneously accounts for the species' longevity and its lethal popularity with the timber industry.

Good vision can be an awful thing. With my readers I could see carvings in bark. Many dozens of visitors desecrated the state's largest tree—one that was centuries old when the Holy Roman Empire developed in the ninth century and was still growing when the empire withered a millennium later—with carved hearts and letters. At least one visitor took spray paint to the largest Western redcedar in America.

With disgust approaching anger, Susan, Elliott, and I had seen enough of the Nolan Creek Cedar, which some, including the DNR, have renamed the Duncan Cedar to honor two brothers responsible for sparing one majestic tree while slaying countless others.

Van Pelt, a man who has devoted many of his 64 years bushwhacking to discover and describe some of Earth's greatest trees, warned me during our last chat that the Nolan Creek Cedar is "a sad story." Indeed.

As Susan, Elliott and I drove away from the giant redcedar, Elliott insisted that we make a stop to explore some nearby old-growth forest, which we did. Such a place, if you've never entered one, is something beyond words. But I'll try. 

Entering a virgin lowlands forest is like entering a cathedral. Sunlight pours into it in diagonal rays from high above. The "windows" are breaks in the multilayered canopies of towering trees. Something about looking up at them, past trunks as divine as Notre-Dame's pillars, produces a kaleidoscope effect.

This holy ground doesn't contain chiseled stone and wooden pews but rather unfurling baby ferns that are velvet to the touch, frogs chirping ribbit, ribbit, ribbit, the shushes of wind through trees, bark that's thick and corky, branches adorned with delicate mosses, and splendid animals that want nothing to do with human beings.

We passed trees that had blown over, exposing walls of leg-sized roots. One root mass was 24.5 feet wide—as wide as three Greyhound buses.

If you're lucky, as we were, you'd encounter a creek and hear gentle tinkling and bubbling as water follows gravity across rocks and wood, occasionally pausing to swirl.

Moved by it all Elliott spun around to face me: "Scott, this is my Heaven!" he rejoiced.

Mine, too, I thought.

Scott Doggett is a former staff writer for the Outdoors section of the Los Angeles Times. He and Susan live in Port Townsend.