Record Sugar Pines Discovered in the Sierra Nevada

California is home to some incredibly impressive trees: oldest, tallest, and largest!

If you’re obsessed with finding big trees, California is a good place to look.  For over 30 years, Michael Taylor – a professional big tree hunter, a fan of sugar pines, and a long-time friend of the Sugar Pine Foundation – has been searching through California forests and finding arboreal giants.

In 2006, Michael co-discovered the tallest known living tree on Earth: 379.1  foot tall “Hyperion,” a Coast Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) in Redwood National Park. (Hyperion has grown to 381 feet since then!)  In 2015, he discovered the tallest known living sugar pine (Pinus lambertiana) in Yosemite National Park: “Tioga Tower,” a 273.74 foot behemoth.

This past October, Michael made more major discoveries when he explored a new pocket of the western Sierra Nevada full of mammoth trees.  He ended up finding the second, third and sixth tallest known sugar pines – plus a record-breaking champion white fir (Abies concolor v. lowiana)!  Conveniently, all the trees are located quite close to one another – though their location must be kept secret to protect these remarkable specimens.

The two tallest sugar pines are very close in height: 267.5 feet and 267.15 feet, respectively.  The 267.15 foot tall tree, dubbed “Redonkulous,” is a massive 10.3 feet in diameter at breast height, or “dbh” as foresters say – hence the name.  Its slightly taller and still unnamed neighbor across the hill is only 7.3 feet dbh.  The new #6 tallest sugar pine, also unnamed but nearby, is 263.7 feet tall and 9.1 feet dbh.  Amazingly, amidst these huge sugar pines is also the tallest known white fir, which stands at 257.5 feet!

Michael’s findings are truly extraordinary – both in terms of the time he invests in locating the trees, and the enormous trees themselves.

For Michael – an engineer by training – what started as a hobby back in the 90s eventually became a “dream job” in 2019 because of his special expertise.

What’s his magic formula for discovering mammoth trees?  Michael has developed a unique, high-tech approach to finding where tall trees should be by pairing and processing freely available LiDAR data and Google Earth imagery to remotely scan forested areas for giant trees.  LiDAR is a method for measuring terrestrial features using laser beams and their reflections emitted from an airplane.  Government agencies like the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and CalFire routinely run LiDAR flights and make the data publicly available.  Michael uses LiDAR data to create Canopy Height Models (CHMs), which visually display tree height – and sometimes even trunk thickness if ultra high resolution LiDAR is available – with different colors. 

An example of one of Michael’s Canopy Height Models (CHMs) overlayed atop Google Earth imagery: different colors represent differing tree heights.

By pasting his CHMs over Google Earth imagery, he can “see” exactly where the largest trees lie before ever setting foot in the field!   While Michael has driven countless dirt roads and hiked hundreds of miles through the woods in search of monster trees, he actually spends many more hours crunching data and hunting through computerized imagery before his ground-truthing expeditions in order to ensure a fruitful search.

This fall, amidst California’s devastating wildfires, Michael’s methods proved successful once again when he found Redonkulous and friends.  He pragmatically yet passionately notes, “I want to document these trees before they’re all gone.”  We agree that this is a noble and inspiring goal, and we’re very glad to be able to share the news of Michael’s latest findings with all you tree huggers and sugar pine lovers!

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