Wright Creek - LiDAR Strikes Again!

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Josh Kelly
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Wright Creek - LiDAR Strikes Again!

Post by Josh Kelly » Sun May 09, 2010 9:29 am

On May 6th, 2010 Nathan Morrison and I made a trip to Wright Creek, a tributary of Santeetlah Creek in Graham County, NC. I have previously posted on a trip to Wright Creek back in February of 2009. http://www.nativetreesociety.org/fieldt ... poplar.htm

The headwaters of Wright Creek begin at 5400 ft. on the slopes of Huckleberry Knob and flow southwest to northeast before joining Santeetlah Creek at 2530 ft. in elevation. The geology of Wright Creek and Santeetlah Creek is of the metasedimentary rock of the Ocoee Supergroup with Copperhill Formation and Slate of Copperhill Formation being the most common groups of rock. The entire watershed is estimated to receive more than 70 inches of rain annually with the upper elevations averaging 94 inches (240 cm) according to Prism Explorer (http://www.prism.oregonstate.edu/products/). The protection afforded by surrounding high ridges, the abundant annual rainfall, soil conditions and other factors make Wright Creek one of the highest quality growth sites for hardwoods known to ENTS – at least after my latest trip there.

There is significant old-growth forest remaining in the Wright Creek drainage. Most of it is in the riparian zone of the creek because Forest Service regulations prevent logging in riparian zones. Many hundreds of acres of primary forest were logged at Wright Creek in the 1960’s and 1970’s and before that, many hundreds of acres were logged on the lower east side of the creek from 1935-1937.

In December 2008 the U.S. Forest Service began to plan a timber sale for the Upper Santeetlah Watershed and since that time I have focused a fair amount of work in identifying the important forests and natural areas of Santeetlah so that they might be protected (http://www.cs.unca.edu/nfsnc/nepa/cheoa ... coping.pdf). Two of the stands proposed in the original scoping have abundant old-growth characteristics as well as some evidence of chestnut salvage and very limited red oak high-grading. Both stands and most of the 13,000 acre Gennet Lumber Company Tract are shown as “virgin” in a 1935 acquisition map of the area. One of these stands, Stand 51-6, is likely to be removed from the sale because of the attention given to it by the Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition, WildLaw and the Forest Service. Stand 53-9 has been given less attention by the Forest Service but is nearly as deserving of protection as 51-6, but that is another story.

On May 6th, Nathan Morrison and I walked up a 1960s logging road, forded Santeetlah Creek and proceeded up the Wright Creek drainage. My objectives for the day were to search for the Federally Endangered Rock Gnome Lichen, search for rare plants in a second growth rich cove stand, and verify three tall LiDAR points I had not yet visited. There is significant old-growth forest remaining in the Wright Creek drainage. Most of it is in the riparian zone of the creek because Forest Service regulations prevent logging in riparian zones. Many hundreds of acres of primary forest were logged at Wright Creek in the 1960’s and 1970’s and before that, many hundreds of acres were logged on the lower east side of the creek from 1935-1937.

We ended up visiting the uppermost LiDAR point first. On the way, we stopped to take a look at a 52” dbh cucumber magnolia. LiDAR had a 174’ point for that first poplar. It is a 54.3” dbh poplar in the old-growth riparian strip along Wright Creek, actually, all of the trees I am reporting on are in that strip. With most trees fully leafed out and a steep bluff upslope of the tree, measurement was difficult; my new Nikon Prostaff really helps though. I came up with a height of 170.4, which I think is pretty close to the actually height of the tree. The tree is growing right on a ledge in a situation where LiDAR routinely overestimates tree height.

We continued up to Wright Creek Falls and through a rich cove stand proposed for logging. I did not locate significantly rare plants along the way, but Wright Creek Falls certainly is good habitat for rare bryophytes, and beautiful to boot.

Returning down stream on our way back to my vehicle, I stopped to measure a poplar that corresponded to a 165’ point in my LiDAR canopy height model. This tree is growing in gentle area along Wright Creek and is accompanied by a large companion tree. With Nathan’s help, I measured this tree to 170.1 ft. tall and 46.5” dbh.

The final tree we measured was the one I was most excited about. My LiDAR canopy height model showed a 182’ tall poplar across the creek from the large twins, and we forded the creek and scrambled through Rhododendron to search for it. Finding the tree was not difficult because it was so emergent. The Rhododendron at its base was tall and dense enough that I had to measure the tree in two parts: the crown first, then the bole. On my first shot into the crown I hit 74 yards and I started to get excited. After over an hour of measuring to do as well as I could in the dense vegetation I came up with 179.7’ in height and 59.8” dbh. This tree is truly exceptional! It is 89.5’ to the first branch in the tree and there is a handsome and straight column up to 109’ at the second series of branches. Not only is the tree tall and relatively large, it is obviously quite old. Deep furrows on the compression side of the tree and scalloped balding on the tension side attest to that. I think this tree so well captures the growing potential and exceptional character of Santeetlah Creek that I have chosen to name it the “Santeetlah Poplar”.

So, the Santeetlah Poplar is the second tallest accurately measured Eastern hardwood, and I’m not sure that I have gotten every inch out of it. Will has already offered to climb this amazing tree. The fact that this tree is so tall, so old and without adjacent competitors really expands my thinking on the growth habits and capabilities of tulip tree. I hope we find other trees like the Santeetlah tree and I’m also rooting for this tree to exceed 180’ in height and to keep adding bulk to its gorgeous frame and full, unbroken crown.

Josh Kelly
Wright Creek Falls
Wright Creek Falls
Attachments
51.9" dbh cucumber magnolia (Magnolia accuminata)
51.9" dbh cucumber magnolia (Magnolia accuminata)
Looking up into the Santeetlah Poplar
Looking up into the Santeetlah Poplar
Base of the Santeetlah Poplar
Base of the Santeetlah Poplar
46.5" dbh X 170.1 poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) on left
46.5" dbh X 170.1 poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) on left

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Don
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Re: Wright Creek - LiDAR Strikes Again!

Post by Don » Sun May 09, 2010 2:58 pm

Well done Josh!
In just a few short years, the idea that LIDAR can be used to identify tall tree candidates has gone from a Beluzo ballooning expedition to reality. It certainly does have limitations (can't do species identification yet), it's expensive, but it sure has a place in our toolbox. Here in Alaska, it is being used in inventory of remote tracts of forest, with good results.

Looking at your last picture, the vegetation seems bimodal, any idea of the history of that site?
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dbhguru
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Re: Wright Creek - LiDAR Strikes Again!

Post by dbhguru » Sun May 09, 2010 8:33 pm

Josh,

You've got my tongue hanging out. What an extraordinary place. Incredible. That area of North Carolina has unlimited potential. The vast majority of tree aficionados have no idea how rich those forests are. I'm definitely scheduling a trip down that way. Thanks for the super work you are doing.

Bob
Robert T. Leverett
Co-founder, Native Native Tree Society
Co-founder and President
Friends of Mohawk Trail State Forest
Co-founder, National Cadre

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James Parton
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Re: Wright Creek - LiDAR Strikes Again!

Post by James Parton » Sun May 09, 2010 8:48 pm

Josh,

Awesome! I can attest to the height of the species, I was there when Will tape-dropped the record-holding Bradley Fork Tuliptree. The Santeetlah Poplar definitly looks older. When Will goes to climb the tree I hope to be there!

http://www.nativetreesociety.org/fieldt ... imbed1.htm

How far is Wright Creek from Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest?

James
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Josh Kelly
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Re: Wright Creek - LiDAR Strikes Again!

Post by Josh Kelly » Mon May 10, 2010 9:23 am

Don,

All I know about the site history is included in the site report. The east side of the creek was logged 1935-1937, the west side 1967-1968 and the riparian area of differential width depending on rocky bluffs and boulderfields has never been logged. The last photo has bimodal height only because of the limited frame of the photo. Also, an adjacent 3' dbh basswood just out of the photo had recently fallen (past 3 years?) adding some light to the understory and increasing seedling growth.

Josh

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Josh Kelly
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Re: Wright Creek - LiDAR Strikes Again!

Post by Josh Kelly » Mon May 10, 2010 9:26 am

Bob,

I look forward to seeing you down this way, an event that seems to occur much more frequently than me visiting the Northeast. When you come, we'll have to sick you on a grove of 170's poplars so you can give a Mohawk SF style census of 170's.

Cheers,
Josh

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Josh Kelly
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Re: Wright Creek - LiDAR Strikes Again!

Post by Josh Kelly » Mon May 10, 2010 9:28 am

James,

The mouth of Wright Creek is less than a mile south of the boundary of Joyce Kilmer/Slickrock Wilderness.

Josh

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mdavie
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Re: Wright Creek - LiDAR Strikes Again!

Post by mdavie » Mon May 10, 2010 6:43 pm

Josh, that is dad-gummed awesome. It's sad when all that's left are riparian strips, but at least they're there. Is... I mean, was there much hemlock in that drainage? Is Wright Creek the one where the Cherolah Skyway hacked through the upper cove of an OG hemlock forest, or is that Cedar Cove?
It's amazing that an old tree is that tall, especially one that would seem to have been more exposed since the 70s or so, and is still intact.
I'm curious about the timber sale, if you care to get into it here, and I'm also curious about whether or not you've noticed any other LIDAR hits around the watershed. This is exciting stuff! How hard has it been to find information on when particular areas were cut?

Man, just imagine what was cut out of the Snowbirds!

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Josh Kelly
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Re: Wright Creek - LiDAR Strikes Again!

Post by Josh Kelly » Sat May 15, 2010 6:39 pm

Mike,

Sorry it has taken me so long to reply - crazy week!

There was plenty of hemlock in the Wright Creek drainage and yes, that impressive Wright Cove overlook on the Cherahala with the ancient hemlock is just above Wright Creek Falls.

You can find the timber sale info on the National Forests in NC website. I linked it to my trip report.

There a many tall tree points in the Santeetlah Drainage that no one has yet checked. I think I have been to all the 170's shown by LiDAR. There are many white pine points in Kilmer and Lower Santeetlah that need to be checked. There are plenty of big trees left to be found on the Santeetlah Bluffs. I saw a 54" dbh cherry there this spring. It was raining to hard to measure the height, but LiDAR puts it at 140'. Just an example of what's out there.

Info on cut/not cut areas is variable. The Forest Service has good info on stands that have been clear-cut under their tenure. Many high-graded stands require visiting to determine site history. Brent Martin from the Wilderness Society did much work finding the acquisition map for Santeetlah/Kilmer which shows 98% of a 13,000 acre tract as "virgin" in 1935.

I suspect Snowbird Creek could have been pretty similar to Santeetlah in growth potential. Ditto for Slickrock, North River TN, Sycamore Creek TN and Citico Creek TN.

Josh

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dbhguru
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Re: Wright Creek - LiDAR Strikes Again!

Post by dbhguru » Sun May 16, 2010 12:06 pm

Josh,

I am continually amazed at what still exists as possibilities in the areas to the south of the Smokies despite the predations of the Nantahala and Cherokee NF timber beasts. I feel a lot more secure these days with all of you watching over things. Please keep up the fabulous work.

LIDAR seems to really be proving its worth.

Bob
Robert T. Leverett
Co-founder, Native Native Tree Society
Co-founder and President
Friends of Mohawk Trail State Forest
Co-founder, National Cadre

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