Biggest jack pine in America discovered in Boundary Waters

The new national champion jack pine in the Boundary Waters. (Photo courtesy American Forests)

An extraordinary specimen of jack pine growing in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness has been named the new national champion of its species. It represents the largest-known example of its kind in the United States. The tree just barely beat the previous jack pine champion, which was found in Voyageurs National Park in 2018.

Standing 63 feet tall, the tree’s massive trunk is almost eight feet around. It was found far from the beaten path in the Boundary Waters by contract ecologists working for the Forest Service.

Champion trees are scored on three attributes to compare them: height, trunk circumference, and crown spread. The Boundary Waters jack pine scored 167 points, just two more than the previous record-holder in Voyageurs.

In fact, the tree in the Boundary Waters is 10 feet shorter and has a crown five feet smaller than the Voyageurs tree, but the new champion’s 95-inch trunk is 17 inches bigger around.

The trees scored so close together that the state of Minnesota named them co-champions. But the nonprofit group American Forests, which manages the official Champion Tree National Register, crowned the Boundary Waters Pinus banksiana as the title holder.

Wild woods

The Boundary Waters jack pine was found in untracked wilderness near Malberg Lake by Casey Cloeter and Spencer Stehl. The pair were trekking into a remote site for the Forest Service’s Forest Inventory and Analysis program.

“On September 5th, 2019 myself and a co-worker found the new National Champion (American Forests) Jack Pine deep in the heart of the BWCAW about 13-15 portages deep in the region East of Malberg Lake,” Cloeter told the Ely Echo. “This is well off any trail or portage on a bushwhack to a fixed research plot.”

The previous champion, located near Namakan Lake in Voyageurs National Park, was found by researchers with the Voyageurs Wolf Project. The scientists were visiting a site where a GPS collar indicated a wolf had spent time when they came across the remarkable tree.

Jack pine often grow in very poor soils, and thus most remain small. Finding a giant like the ones in the Boundary Waters or Voyageurs National Park is rare. It’s probably not a coincidence that both champions have been found in areas with strict federal protection.

While all sizes and shapes of trees provide benefits including wildlife habitat, carbon storage, shade, and more, big trees are noted for their important role in ecosystems.

Tightly-sealed jack pine cones in the BWCAW. (Photo by wglisson via iNaturalist)

A tree of the north

Minnesota has the largest range of jack pine of any state in the country, with the tree also found in Michigan and Maine. It is the most abundant pine species in Minnesota, and is also found in great numbers east of the Rocky Mountains in Canada. Jack pine provides food and cover for numerous wildlife species. Their seeds are eaten by many rodents, birds, deer, and snowshoe hares.

Most jack pine grow to 55 to 65 feet tall, and boast a trunk circumference of 30 inches at most. While both Minnesota’s champion jack pine fall in the average height range, their trunks are 82 inches (Voyageurs) and 95 inches (BWCAW) respectively.

Jack pine typically begin to die by about 75 years old, but some can live to more than 200 years.

Noted Boundary Waters forest researcher and wilderness advocate Miron “Bud” Heinselman reported finding one specimen in the Boundary Waters that was 243 years old. The species is dependent on fire to reproduce. Their cones are sealed with resin which melts during fires. Only then do the cones open and release seeds.

American Forests has tracked Champion Trees since 1940. Minnesota is currently home to other national champion tree species including bigtooth aspen (Pine County), black willow (Washington County), and tamarack (Crow Wing County).

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