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Largest jack pine in US confirmed in Voyageurs Park

Wildlife researcher Austin Homkes, who studies the relationship between wolves and beavers in Voyageurs National Park, stands next to a giant jack pine that turned out to be the largest living jack pine measured in the U.S. The tree, located along Namakan Lake in the park, is now the official national jack pine "champion tree." Photo courtesy Thomas Gable.

Jack pine often don't get much respect. The sometimes scraggly, usually not-too-tall pine trees often lag behind their bigger cousins, the white pine and red pine, when it comes to favorite evergreens of the north woods.

But a jack pine on Namakan Lake in Voyageurs National Park has gained some national notoriety. The 73-foot-tall tree, on the shores of Moose Bay, has been officially declared the largest jack pine in the U.S. and was recently added to American Forests' Champion Trees national register.

The tree measures almost 7 feet around and was discovered by a team of researchers studying wolves in the park that borders Ontario. Researcher Austin Homkes first saw the massive tree, and then showed it to his colleague Thomas Gable.

 Photo courtesy Thomas Gable"When we saw it, you could just tell. It's so much bigger than most of the jack pines we see,'' Gable told the News Tribune.

Homkes and Gable started keeping a measuring tape with them because they've seen so many big trees during their wolf research in the backcountry in and around Minnesota's only national park. After measuring the big jack pine they contacted the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. A forester visited the tree and confirmed the measurements, and it was submitted to American Forests. Champion trees are scored on three criteria: height, crown spread and trunk circumference. The previous national champion jack pine was 30-40 points smaller. By comparison, the former state champion jack pine, which grew in a Mountain Iron neighborhood, was only 57-feet tall. (The News Tribune reported in April 2015 that the state record jack pine was cut down to make way for the expansion of the Minntac taconite mine pit.)

But the jack pine isn't the only big tree the researchers have found. They recently confirmed a state record balsam fir, at 80-feet tall, and state record black spruce, at 85 feet, also in or just outside Voyageurs. And they have submitted another entry, a possible state record red pine.

Gable has cored — aged by counting tree rings — some of the big trees they have discovered in the park and found pines that are 300 to 400 years old. That's rare in a region marked by frequent forest fires and which was mostly leveled by loggers in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

"We are finding these little pockets of really old growth, big trees that somehow survived when everything else around them was logged off or burned," Gable said. "The big jack pine is only 50 feet from the lake ... some of the other old growth are near old logging roads. It makes you wonder how they made it."

Homkes agreed.

"Every once in awhile we just run into this random, giant old tree. Usually it's by itself. Sometimes it's five or six of them. It's never a lot,'' Homkes said. "Makes you wonder how they survived."

Kim Pleticha, spokeswoman for the Minnesota DNR's forestry department, said the big jack pine was confirmed in person by staff foresters and becomes one of four U.S.-champion trees in Minnesota. The others are a black willow near Marine on St. Croix, a tamarack near Brainerd and bigtooth aspen near Sandstone.