Bettis Branch, Big Creek, GRSM 1/3/04   Will Blozan
  Jan 04, 2004 19:28 PST 

ENTS and others,

Saturday I had a wonderful trip into the Big Creek area of the Great
Smokies. Ed Coyle and Ron Busch accompanied me on a tree hunt into the
remote drainage of Bettis Branch, lying between Baxter Creek to the east and
Mouse Creek to the west, both of which have been surveyed to some degree.
The tree growth in the Big Creek area has not failed to amaze me, as the
following report will tell.

Just before passing over from the Baxter Creek drainage into Bettis Branch
we measured a huge red maple that was 15' cbh and 121' tall. This was a new
NC State Champion, and had an impressive twisted and fissured trunk that had
slow taper and forked into a massive spreading crown. Very impressive-
enough so to elicit a smile out of Ed for a photo! We accessed the upper
part of the drainage from the Baxter Creek Trail to Mt. Sterling, entering
from the east at about 3700 feet. Extensive and impressive relic (uncut)
groves of super knarly 400-500+ year-old blackgum covered the more xeric
ridges and massive chestnut debris was common.

Extensively logged, the drainage contained logging railroad debris including
track and wheels. A steep but easily-traveled railroad grade followed nearly
the whole stream. The forest was young and rather poor in diversity compared
to Baxter Creek but nonetheless contained some impressive trees. We also had
to traverse a fantastic waterfall that is not on the map. It had a 100-120'
long rock slide which then dumped over a 20' rock into a deep pool lined
with big logs. Very nice, and would probably be a state park anywhere else
outside of the Smokies. On an ugly note, hemlock woolly adelgid was present
throughout Baxter Creek and Bettis Branch. Interestingly, some of the trees
I inspected on Bettis Branch appeared to have immature adelgids. The waxy
masses were very small, and looked more like very early October development,
not the large, egg-laden masses typical of this time of year. Could this be
a sign of predation?

The general canopy was dominated by tuliptree, black locust, and some
patches of black birch and basswood. Yellow buckeye, bitternut, and mountain
silverbell appeared here and there but were not very common as a canopy
species. Tuliptree, by far, had the share of the sunlight. With only 60-70
years of growth, most of the forest was still recovering and tree heights
were not overly impressive for much of the upper portions of the drainage.
Heights of the dominants averaged around 140' for tuliptree. However, true
to Big Creek reputation, the trees gained height and girth farther down.

As the canopy dominants began to creep up into the 150' class we gained hope
of finding some super-tall trees, as we have in the adjoining drainages.
Eventually, 160' became common, and the 150's were passed over left and
right in search of "The one". Soon 170' was coming into focus and we scored
the tallest tree at 174.8' and 10'3" in girth. This tuliptree was literally
growing out of the abandoned railroad bed and thus could not be very old at
all. A nearby tree was 167.8'.

The 170'+ tuliptree was expected, but the find of the day was a black locust
that, though only 6'1" in girth, reached to a record shattering 162' tall.
This is the fourth eastern deciduous species known to reach 160', a
distinction shared only by tuliptree, white ash, and pignut hickory.
Bitternut, sycamore, cherrybark oak and sweetgum will no doubt be confirmed
in this height class but for now it is a height extremely few species and
individuals (other that tuliptree) can attain. In fact, only one tree of
white ash, pignut hickory, and black locust is known over 160', with few
contenders for cohorts. Have we now just found the outliers on the height
curve or the beginning of a new paradigm for these species?

Anyway, here is a tally of the finds:

Baxter Creek:

American beech
10'7" x 120.3'
8'6" x 126.7' May be 130' with more time searching out the tops...
White ash
(previously tagged w/ Paul Jost)- measured from trail upslope- 155.2'. Still
growing well!
Red maple
15' x 120.7' New NC State Champion

Bettis Branch:

11'4" x 93' Almost NC State Champion
Mountain silverbell
7'1" x 130.1' Third known over 130'; all are in Big Creek. What an
underrated species!
Yellow buckeye
6'5" x 131.5'
8'3" x 147.9'
10'1" x 118.3' I call it a twin, Ed says one tree... New ENTS height record?
White basswood
6'11" x 130.4'
Black locust
6'1" x 162' New ENTS record for the species; new "160' Club" member.
~11' x ~135' Would be new NC State Record but did not bring my list...
White ash
6'10" x 138.9' Young tree with absolutely perfect form, well on the way to
the "150' Club"
6'3" x 132.7'
~11' x 152.7'
9'11" x 157.6'
twin x 159.9'
10' x 160.5' 160' trees abounded; probably the stand average in the lower
9'9" x 161.3'
8'3" x 161.7'
9'6" x 162.7'
11'6" x 164.4'
9'8" x 166.3'
8'1" x 167.8'
10'3" x 174.8' Third or fourth tallest tuliptree known...


Will Blozan
President, Eastern Native Tree Society
ISA Certified Arborist