Douglas fir could be oldest on the Coast

A Douglas fir tree found by two residents during a hike through the Roberts Creek back roads could be the oldest on the Sunshine Coast.

Ross Muirhead and Rick O'Neill said they discovered the giant fir tree while investigating a gravel pit operation in the area. Their measurements showed the tree to have a circumference of approximately eight metres.

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According to the province's registry of big trees, the widest Douglas fir in British Columbia measures some 13.3 metres in diameter.

Muirhead and O'Neill's measurements would place the Coastal specimen half a metre narrower than number 10 on that list, the Meech Creek Giant of south Coquitlam.

"I'm concerned that the gravel pit opening will create new wind patterns that could affect this heritage tree's stability," said Muirhead in an email announcing the discovery.

He added that the tree had been given the name "Elphinstone Giant."

While measuring the Giant was a relatively simple task for the two hikers, determining its actual age could be a more complicated process.

Researchers would need to extract a core sample from the living specimen in order to count the growth rings left by the tree's many journeys through the seasons.

Allan Carroll, an associate professor with the University of British Columbia's department of forest sciences, said the tree could date back to the early 15th century.

"I have seen cross sections of trees of similar size, and they were all approximately 600 years old," Carroll said.

According to him, trees like the Elphinstone Giant are "relatively rare, particularly on the Sunshine Coast. They are noteworthy from the point of view of biodiversity, not only for their rarity, but because of the diverse fauna associated with them," he said.

The professor added that in recent years, old growth trees like the one in Roberts Creek had been shown to support unique communities of mites and insects, those that find their home in the layers of moss that adorn the branches.

There has been no measurement taken yet of the height of the tree. The Meech Creek Giant, for example, was listed as the tallest in British Columbia at over 93 metres.

Another notable specimen in the area was discovered in 1998 on Gambier Island. That tree, which Muirhead had also been credited for discovering, ranked number two on the Douglas fir registry.

Trees on the lower slopes are more vulnerable to threats such as disease, fires and storms, Muirhead said, meaning they are generally quite younger than their ancient brethren atop Mount Elphinstone.

"The other large Douglas firs on the Coast that survived the mid-1880s fire are going to be in the 300 to 400 year range. What they call the "vets" [more numerous, like those found in Wilson Creek Forest] are in the 250 year range," Muirhead said.

To find the tree, the hikers drove up the B&K logging road and made the first left onto the Roberts Creek forest service road. They parked at the gravel pit five minutes up the road.

"Once you're standing on the edge of the pit, take a left towards Roberts Creek," explained Muirhead. "When you reach the top of the bank, follow the slope uphill."

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