Classroom in a Canopy

Classroom in a Canopy

Forestry Students Climb Trees on Campus

By Henry Faust

Michael Kennedy forgot about his fear of heights when he found himself swaying 130 feet up a Redwood tree.

“I almost felt like it was fitting to have a beer in the canopy,” Kennedy said. “But for safety reasons I wouldn’t recommend it.”

Kennedy is learning how to climb and conduct research in a tree along with 50 other students in the forestry department’s silviculture class. Silviculture studies the physiology of trees and measures them in a non-destructive manner.

Observing a Redwood tree’s canopy validated Kennedy’s love of the natural world. Kennedy said one can learn more about a tree by climbing it rather than cutting it down and dissecting it.

“We can continually do measurements of the tree over time and go back to it,” Kennedy said. “Redwood’s are an enduring species and they have a lot of stories to tell.”

Lucy Kerhoulas teaches silviculture at HSU and leads the tree climbing lab. She is hoping to further canopy research by teaching her students tree climbing skills.

“To rig a large tree for climbing you have to shoot an arrow connected to a rope at the lowest solid branch,” Kerhoulas said. “Then you leapfrog from one branch to another until you reach the top.”

Once a rope is rigged from the top of the tree to the bottom climbers begin ascending the tree.

Kerhoulas said tree canopy research is a largely unexplored frontier of the scientific community.

“There’s not a lot of people doing tree canopy research because its difficult to access the canopies,” Kerhoulas said. “You basically have to learn how to get into these trees.”

Kerhoulas learned how to climb trees from fellow HSU forestry professor, Steve Sillett. Sillett is famous in the forestry community for pioneering new methods of climbing, exploring and studying tall trees.

“It’s a profound feeling to be in an old-growth redwood,” Kerhoulas said. “To think that this tree has been around since the time of Christ and I’m at the top of it.”

Lucy’s husband, Nick Kerhoulas, assisted with the tree-climbing lab. Nick Kerhoulas is an evolutionary biologist and mammalogist by trade.

“I’ve studied flying squirrels up in these trees,” Nick Kerhoulas said. “It’s interesting to see firsthand the three-dimensional world that these animals live in.”

Nick Kerhoulas said large redwood trees contain a richer ecosystem than most people might expect.

“There’s a lot of soil, ferns, huckleberries, and salamanders up in the canopy,” Nick Kerhoulas said. “Our whole reality is on the ground and their whole life and ecosystem is in the tree-tops.”

Climbing the tree is just the commute to work for most canopy researchers.

“Once you’re up in the canopy, you’re moving around taking measurements or placing recording devices to study light or sap flow,” Nick Kerhoulas said.

Kennedy said it is ironic that Redwoods have tiny seeds but are one of the biggest organisms in the world. He cannot help but marvel at the seemingly immortal powers of Redwood trees.

“Whether there’s a forest fire or a flood,” Kennedy said. “Redwood’s will be some of the last trees standing.”

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