The Landmark Trees Project is an effort to find, describe and understand the most magnificent remaining forests of Southeast Alaska. Founded in 1996 by Sam Skaggs of Alaska Research Voyages, Inc, the project has documented 64 one-acre sites across the Tongass under the field direction of naturalist Richard Carstensen.
Landmark Tree sites are scored according to the dimensions of the largest tree and the wood volume of the surrounding acre. They are also assessed for ecological values such as winter deer and summer bear habitat. Originally conceived as an ecotourism venture which might help to bring trees the same standing as glaciers, bears and whales, (the industry's current advertising icons) the project now involves residents throughout the Tongass who seek deeper familiarity with their backyard treasures.
Landmark Tree researchers have found trees measuring 10 and 11 feet in diameter, and up to 250 feet tall Our highest scoring stand contains two spruces much larger than the official state record. It grows on limestone bedrock (karst), but most of our sites occur on stream and river deposits (alluvium).
Landmark Trees started by finding and documenting the cream of the Tongass big forest. Although that will continue, we have quickly reached stage two; now that we know a lot about the Tongass megaforest, can we provide some way for residents and tourists to experience it first hand? The answer is more complex than we anticipated!
Southeast Alaska's biggest remaining trees usually grow on streams, which have salmon, which bring bears. Our search takes us far from beaches and roads, into the most remote and sensitive bear concentrations on the Tongass. Most of our highest-scoring stands are feeding places for brown and black bears that almost never see or smell people in those areas. Others are important subsistence places for communities like Tenakee that oppose large-scale tourism in such watersheds. How can Landmark Trees be shared with the public?
In 1999, we began discussions with USFS recreation managers, the Sitka Conservation Society, and several mid-size tour company representatives in an effort to identify a Landmark Tree site appropriate for commercial use. Lake Eva at the mouth of Peril Strait has emerged as a strong candidate. The challenge will be to maximize the conservation benefits of visitation while minimizing impacts to wildlife, vegetation and nearby human communities. As for those sites we can't recommend, we will share what we've learned from them without succumbing to that "Guide to the 10 best-kept secrets of . . ." approach. Exact location of many LT sites (GPS coordinates, detailed maps, etc.) may never be made public, as is the case with sensitive archeological data or the Nature Conservancy's Heritage Site data.
While our highest-scoring LT sites are all very remote, we have also assessed, mapped, and intensively studied several impressive one-acre stands that are quickly reached on trails near Ketchikan, Petersburg, Kake, Sitka and Juneau. These "Community Landmark Tree Stands" already receive heavy use by residents. In 2000-2001, with funding from the Leighty Foundation and the Alaska Conservation Foundation, we are working with conservation groups and the Forest Service to create interpretive booklets for these Community LT Stands.
Landmark Trees has been one of those timely ideas which brings people together, and takes on a life of its own, much bigger than the expectations of its originators. Who would have thought that a big tree hunt would unearth such a diversity of prizes?