Old-growth stand ‘Elder’s Grove’ near Paul Smith’s College is nearing end of lifetime
By Jamie Organski
When a mid-December storm swept through the region, it claimed the life of a little-known elder statesman. Believed to be one of the tallest trees in the state, Tree 103 toppled after spending its life as part of a group of giant white pines known as “Elder’s Grove.”
Many milestones have come and gone as this stand towered in the forest preserve near Paul Smith’s College, including the formation of the Adirondack Park. Still-living trees in the 8-acre site date to around 1675.
Although this particular grove is a unique example of old-growth forest in a region that saw many of its trees clear cut centuries ago, how does Tree 103 measure up in terms of age and height? As it turns out, the data are difficult to determine.
An imprecise practice
The only way to directly measure height is to climb a tree and drop a tape to the ground, said Justin Waskiewicz, a Paul Smith’s College forestry professor. Most measurements are indirect and incorporate assumptions, leaving room for error, he said. Plus, trees are living, changing entities.
Retired math professor Howard Stoner, working with the Eastern Native Tree Society (ENTS), measured Tree 103 multiple times. In November 2003, he recorded the it at 158 feet. In 2005, 154.5 feet, in 2006, 160.4 feet, the top figure. In 2020, he sized it at 158 feet. Stoner attributed the shrinkage to broken limbs from the crown.
Now that it’s down, it’s tough to get an accurate reading. The tree’s mass expended an energy equivalent of several sticks of dynamite when it fell, Waskiewicz said, doing damage to itself and its surroundings.
“Standing chest deep in this vegetable carnage it’s hard to be certain where the top of the tree really is,” Waskiewicz said. “The stump is a mass of splinters.”
Determining the exact age would prove troublesome, he said, as its center is rotten, complicating any attempt to read its rings.
Tree 103’s final stats aside, there’s a new giant to take its place. According to Stoner, a white pine near Ampersand Mountain measured 165 feet in 2020.
“This is a relatively young tree and will continue to put on new growth at the top. It is the tallest tree in the state measured using the ENTS algorithm,” he said.
Eastern white pines rise above all other species in the Northeast, Waskiewicz said.
“In the Adirondacks, nothing can come close to white pine,” he said. “In a mixed species forest, they are often visible at great distances because they stick up thirty feet or more above their neighbors.”
White pine is known as long-lived, but red pine, red spruce, sugar maple, and beech all can live at least as long and hemlock and Northern white cedar trees are known to live even longer. The most extreme ages are typically achieved by relatively small trees growing in poor conditions. The oldest of all in New York are cedars growing on cliffs at the Niagara Escarpment, some of them over 1,000 years old but shorter than an average person, according to Waskiewicz.
The end of an era?
Elder’s Grove is full of dead and downed trees from past years, with about two dozen big trees still standing. Waskiewicz estimated those trees will be gone in about 50 years, as they are reaching the end of the expected 300-400 years of life for white pines.
When that happens, the eight acres that has been their home will change because there are no young white pines living there now. “The big trees will be replaced by red spruce, balsam fir, some yellow birch and American beech,” Waskiewicz said. “Those are all fine species, but none of them is capable of attaining the stature of a white pine.”
Learn more about sizable trees in the Empire State: Big Tree Register – NYS Dept. of Environmental Conservation). State and national lists may be found here: (American Forests). The site is updated annually by the American Forests organization which has been maintaining this list of the largest known trees of each species since the 1940s.