Arkansas: Ancient forest trees survive by disguising themselves as stunted little trees

The tree didn’t look like much. A gimpy, gnarly post oak, it clung to
the edge of a rocky, southwest-facing bluff in the Ozark Mountains of
northwest Arkansas, directly above an old rock shelter at which
archaeologists have documented thousands of years of human occupation.
Twisted, stunted, wind-tortured, the tree was maybe 15 inches in
diameter, and if it was 20 feet tall I’d be surprised.

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Its snaggled, broken-ended branches erupted in unpredictable directions, like a mad scientist’s hair. “This is one of my favorite trees,” said Dave Stahle
(pronounced Stay-lee), gently resting a palm on the moss-covered bark.
“He’s 250 years old, exactly.” Last winter, Stahle and Cleaveland constructed a computer model for sampling Enders soil sites in the Arkansas Ozarks, targeting south-facing exposures where summer drought and heat are felt with a vengeance. These sites are the most likely to have “trashy,”
non-commercial timber–and, therefore, according to Stahle’s theory,
the most likely to have been left unbothered and natural.

Stahle randomly chose 50 sampling locations from the 640 sites located by the computer, and he and his cohorts ran transects on all 50 during the late winter and spring of 1992. They found old-growth forest on 20 of the sites, a 40 percent hit ratio. If you use acres as the yardstick, 18.7 percent of the total surface area of the 50 sample sites was old-growth, with trees up to 400 years old–pretty close to the max for a post oak. “Based on these figures, there are more than 70 square miles of existing old-growth forest just in the Boston Mountain portion of the Ozarks,” Stahle says. “And that’s just on the Enders soil type on south-facing slopes.

There are several other likely soil types and slope aspects we haven’t even sampled yet. I know some places right here in Fayetteville where 300-year-old post oaks are growing in front yards.” Stahle and Cleaveland have also done extensive tree-ring work with baldcypress, a species especially valuable to dendrochronology because of its ability to live a long time. Stahle has sampled baldcypress stands in North Carolina that are more than 1,600 years old, and he’s found numerous sites in east Arkansas with trees over 500 years old. One site, on Bayou DeView, has more than a few l,000-year-old trees.

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