Steve Sillett’s Secrecy and the Virginia Round Leaf Birch

May 11, 2008 at 10:48 pm 13 comments

Over the winter, I read The Wild Trees and learned about the botanists and climbers who studied the diverse ecosystems in the canopies of the giant redwoods. I enjoyed the book and you can read my original thoughts in an earlier post.

Now, I do have to admit there was one section where I scoffed at scientist, Steve Sillett. Once his research started to take off and he was being interviewed for The New Yorker, he kept the locations of the trees guarded. He was worried about recreational climbers ascending the trees (you know, the same trees he climbed) and hurting the canopy.

“Oh, give me a break!” I thought.

Steve had started his tree climbing career recklessly in college without any ropes and just a few chapters earlier, he had to be reprimanded by arborists for climbing the redwoods using metal logging spikes. Was he really the one to be lecturing?

But now, I definitely have a new appreciation for Steve Sillett’s secrecy and I humbly recognize that one can change their mind over the years (or…a mere four months). In Steve’s case, I suppose as he became more familiar with the trees and the ample life at top, he developed a greater appreciation of their fragility. As for me, what changed my mind about Steve?

The Virginia Round Leaf Birch Tree.

Photo by Peter M. Mazzeo @ USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database

The Virginia Round Leaf Birch Tree only grows naturally in Smyth County, Virginia at an elevation of 2750 feet. The tree was discovered in the early 1900s and then it VANISHED for 60 years. It was assumed extinct until 1975, when a small patch was found growing near Cressy Creek. And so, the Virginia Round Leaf Birch became the very first tree protected under the Endangered Species Act.

What a delicate treasure these trees must have been! Surely, anyone who ran across such a rare tree would cherish and respect the moment. No one would want to hurt the precious few that remained, right?

WRONG! In 1984, “Vandals dug up and removed, uprooted, or cut off at ground level all but 5 of the 30 healthy, 2-year-old seedlings in Sugar Grove, Virginia

What the–?!?! Who would do such a thing?

After that, the planting locations of the Virginia Round Leaf Birch were kept secret. Although less than 10 of the natural population remain, thanks to secrecy, there are more than 1000 artificially propogated trees out there and the species has successfully moved from “Endangered” to “Threatened”.

So, Steve Sillett, I believe you were right to be discrete about the redwoods, afterall.

Even the population of people who love trees still has its jerks.

Entry filed under: redwoods, Richard Preston, The Wild Trees, Virginia Round Leaf Birch.

links for 2008-05-11 links for 2008-05-13

13 Comments Add your own

  • 1. geekhiker  |  May 11, 2008 at 11:15 pm

    When Yosemite was first “discovered” in the 1800’s, there were seven trees at the top of Half Dome. Seven old, weather-beaten trees eking out an existence on an otherwise completely barren expanse of granite.

    Today, they are gone. Some of the first people who ascended Half Dome and camped there overnight cut them down. And burned them in campfires.

    In the Eastern Sierra the tree Methuselah tree, until recently thought to be the oldest tree in the world, still grows after nearly 5,000 years. Only two people on the planet know which tree it is.

    And thank God for it. One would hate to think of a tree that’s been around for five centuries being hacked down to roast a marshmallow…

  • 2. tgaw  |  May 11, 2008 at 11:26 pm

    @geekhiker – That is a horrible story of selfishness and shortsightedness! We humans sure do suck sometimes.

  • 3. Ryan Somma  |  May 13, 2008 at 9:21 pm

    In the Passenger Pigeons’ final days, newspapers were advertising where the birds could be found as “Last Chance to Hunt the Passenger Pigeon!” before it finally went extinct.

    It’s not a behavior in my species I want to understand. : (

  • 4. Forest Giants « Norbert Haupt  |  May 14, 2008 at 9:54 pm

    […] interesting blog entry by Vicky speculates about Steve Sillett’s intentions when he kept the locactions of the trees he […]

  • 5. tgaw  |  May 20, 2008 at 10:04 am

    Another example of secrecy at work– this time with an 89 foot American Chestnut in Ohio:

  • 6. Dave  |  June 1, 2008 at 7:29 am

    The Wild Trees is an awesome book.

    There’s a story about a landowner in my state who deliberately cut down what might have been the oldest tree in the state (a stunted redcedar growing out of a bluff) apparently because they didn’t want potential issues with the state protecting something on their land.

    Such arrogance.

    I do understand why such things are kept secret. When I was doing some rare plant monitoring work we had to sign a secrecy agreement.

  • 7. Clint  |  June 1, 2008 at 9:54 am

    I could see doing that.

    Considering my county has sent people to JAIL for cutting down a tree on their OWN property…. I can totally see doing that to prevent them from making a power grab on YOUR property.

    If you want to use your yard for something else, or simply don’t want the risk of a huge tree falling on your house, an insurance company’s reluctance to pay, and slow contractors who do repairs past deadline, or get tired of pulling ticks out of your hair after walking from your car to your house, don’t like your car to be covered in pollen or bird shit… then it’s your property, and your tree.
    I hardly find it arrogant to do what you want with your own property.

  • 8. chriggy  |  June 1, 2008 at 3:27 pm

    I’m going to have to side with Clint on this one.

  • 9. M. D. Vaden  |  June 4, 2008 at 8:22 pm

    The Wild Trees was worth reading a couple of times. I bought the book while living within 2 hours of the redwoods, after already hiking there almost every 3 weeks for years.

    My only dissappointment with the book was the absense of images. So for thousands of people who may never see the Grove of Titans or Atlas Grove, I compiled a webpage with several images, linking to albums with bigger images. The page also links to image galleries of others pertaining to these giant trees.

    I hyperlinked the page in my name signature above too, if this comment box works as other ones.

    Feel free to share the page and images with friends who may enjoy seeing a colorful visual aid.


    M. D. Vaden of Oregon

  • […] But just planting a tree is not enough. Trees once planted must be nurtured and protected, sometimes even from ourselves as Vicki writes in Steve Sillett’s Secrecy and the Virginia Round Leaf Birch. […]

  • 11. I See Extinct Things « TGAW  |  November 14, 2008 at 8:03 am

    […] tree species still existing in the wild.” However, thanks to the restoration efforts (and secrecy!), there are enough artificially propagated trees out there for the species to be considered […]

  • 12. Rhodos All Around « TGAW  |  March 28, 2009 at 12:59 am

    […] The truth of the matter is I really don’t know what my favorite tree is (Good thing that wasn’t on the Mosaic Meme). There are so many species that are sentimental to me, it is challenging to pick a clear-cut favorite. Of course, I’m increasingly passionate about the American Chestnut and its restoration efforts. But at the same time, Sycamores remind me of my Grandmother. Black Locusts remind me of my childhood. Tulip Poplars make me think of my sister. I have suddenly developed a distinct fondness for the Pawpaw just in this past week! The Keffer Oak entices me to visit repeatedly and I ever so covet getting to see a real live Virginia Round Leaf Birch. […]

  • 13. ajp1234  |  July 7, 2011 at 3:11 pm

    I only recently got to see the native stand of betula ubers and it really is a haunting reminder of how fragile a situation some of the species we live around are. Thank you for the article and the fact that there are propagated trees out there doing well certainly makes me feel better. still yet, seeing the remaining native stand was a sight that re-solidified importance of taking care of what we live around.


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