Wilderness Wanderings: Yoda tree survives Silver Creek Fire | SteamboatToday.com

Wilderness Wanderings: Yoda tree survives Silver Creek Fire

Have you ever been in the forest or a park and stood in front of a very, very old tree and reflected on all the history that has occurred during its time? Did you admire how far its branches stretched skyward or sprawled horizontally? 

We had the opportunity last week to visit a more than 400-year-old Douglas fir that stands near the 20,120 acres burned in last summer’s Silver Creek Fire in and adjacent to the upper Sarvis Creek Wilderness Area. 

The fire came close to Yoda, the nickname foresters have used for this tree since it was found two decades ago. Yoda, as most of us know, is the old Jedi master in the “Star Wars” movie series. 

The Yoda tree may or may not be one of the oldest living trees in our local national forest since there may be a few more out there that we don’t know about. 

As the fire raged, U. S. Forest Service staff planned with firefighters to protect Yoda, although as a lower priority than private structures in the area, according to John Anarella the recreation program manager of the Yampa Ranger District. 

We’re not at liberty to share Yoda’s exact location — in order to protect it from possible vandalism — other than it’s in the area of Gore Pass. This is a typical policy to safeguard other ancient and unique trees throughout the country, such as several bristlecone pines in the California Sierras that are more than 4,000 years old. 

Yoda stands near the crest of a north facing slope, at an elevation of about 8,600 feet, and its circumference is just an inch short of 16 feet, as measured 4 feet above the ground. 

It has three tops, including two of which are dead or dying. And it likely endured multiple lightning strikes over the centuries, one more recently that stripped off a large area of bark and a chunk of wood. 

As the patriarch, Yoda stands within a small grove of what likely are its descendants — trees that sprung up from its cones. 

Two of these younger Douglas firs, measuring 10 to 11 feet around, may be decades older than any other tree in the immediate area. Another offspring, which long ago fell with its top at Yoda’s base, has since thrived with its large branches growing skyward, including one as thick as the original trunk. 

Douglas firs are not common in our Rocky Mountain forests where lodgepole pine, sub-alpine fir, Engelmann spruce and aspen are the dominant species. 

In our region Douglas firs more typically grow at drier, lower elevations ranging in elevation from 8,300 to 9,100 feet, according to Mark Westfahl, timber program manager in the supervisor’s office of the Medicine Bow-Rout National Forest in Laramie, Wyoming. 

Some stands of Engelmann spruce at higher elevations are in the 300- to 400-year range, he said. Lodgepole ranged up to 230 years old prior to the mountain pine beetle epidemic, but it would be rare to find any that old today, and likely not in 40-acre stands as were found a few decades ago. Aspen may age up to 120 years. 

“The bark beetle, in a way, has taken the place of fire,” Westfahl said. And in the case of the beetle epidemic in the first decade of the 2000’s, “It took the place of a very large fire.”

Of the present and near future, “we’re harvesting as fast as we can to get the (timber) product out and reduce fuel loading,” said Westfahl. “It also allows the little trees to grow better.”

Back to history

As we reflected in Yoda’s shade, we estimated it was 150 years old at the founding of our country. It was around 200 years old when French trappers first came to the area and heard the chug, chug, chug sound of a steamboat that later became our community’s name. 

Maybe the Ute Indians camped nearby when Yoda was a young sapling. And it survived other fires in the area over the past four centuries. 

Bob Korch is trail crew leader with Friends of Wilderness which assists the U.S. Forest Service in maintaining trails and educating the public about the Mount Zirkel, Sarvis Creek and Flat Tops Wilderness areas. For more information, visit friendsofwilderness.com.

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