Forester Tom Malone once guided me on a trek to see Alaska’s largest black spruce tree. It was a short adventure. The 71-foot tree is a two-minute walk from my office.
The Alaska champion black spruce tree stands on the campus of the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The tree lives in a mixed forest next to large white spruce trees, mature birch and a few alders and willows. The tree leans uphill, and its trunk is 45 inches around. When I hugged it, I could barely clasp my hands together. The largest black spruce in Alaska is a lucky tree, because its neighbors to the north are gone, removed in the mid-1990s during the installation of a power line.
The Alaska champion black spruce stood exposed for a few years before a researcher visiting from Iceland, a land of many volcanoes but few trees, pointed it out to forest geneticist John Alden as they walked by in the spring of 2001.
“He said, ‘That’s a black spruce,’” Alden said. “I said, no, it was too large. I didn’t think it could be a black spruce.”
Alden, a longtime university forest geneticist, thought the tree was a type of white spruce that is darker green and has coarser bark than other white spruce. When the snow melted, Alden walked back to the tree and saw beneath it the telltale sign of black spruce — pudgy cones, about one inch long. White spruce cones are longer and pointier.
Alden nominated the black spruce in “The Big Tree Challenge,” a nationwide program that was run in Alaska by Tom Malone of the UAF Department of Forest Sciences. Malone used a laser-measuring device to confirm the tree’s height of 71 feet, which bested the old record of 65 feet, set by a tree that stands near where the Tolovana River empties into the Tanana River in Interior Alaska.
Alaska’s largest black spruce stands up against national competition. The U.S. record is a 78-foot black spruce in Taylor County, Wisconsin, according to the National Register of Big Trees. The tallest trees are not always the winners of The Big Tree Challenge; foresters score trees on height, circumference and the spread of a tree’s crown.
The black spruce on the UAF campus is taller than the state record western paper birch, a 67-footer near Haines, and Alaska’s tallest balsam poplar, a 60-foot tree on the Kuskokwim River. Alaska’s current champion white spruce will soon give up its title, Malone said. The 112-foot tree in the floodplain of the Tok River is dying from an exposed root system.
Other Alaska state champions are a 126-foot quaking aspen off Cache Creek Road, west of Fairbanks; a 132-foot black cottonwood providing a lofty perch for eagles in Haines; a western hemlock standing 150 feet tall on Admiralty Island; and a Sitka spruce near Exchange Cove on Prince of Wales Island — perhaps the tallest tree in the state, at 185 feet.