The Lost Forty: A Minnesotan National Treasure

It is a story that sounds almost too good to be true, one that could be the subject of a novel or film. I first heard about this place when I visited the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness a few years back and it lives up to its mysterious name; a place that both naturalists and historians alike will enjoy. Take a step back in time to discover an ancient world immersed in the pine forests of Northern Minnesota.

Eastern White Pine

The eastern white pine is a staple of the coniferous forests ranging from the Appalachians in the Northeast all the way to the Midwestern forests of Northern Minnesota. While dwarfed by California’s Redwoods, the eastern white pine has been measured at heights of upwards to 200ft, sadly, with all such specimens cut down due to logging. While this tree can tolerate most soil conditions, for a tree to grow to that size, however, the soil must be the perfect combination of acidic, moist, and well drained. It is for this reason that the 350-year-old white pines in the “Lost Forty” are only 130ft tall (still a very impressive height) yet some of the oldest of its kind in existence. What is the Lost Forty and why have trees here outlived their cross-country counterparts?

The Lost-Forty

Roughly 70 miles from Itasca State Park, the home to the headwaters of the Mississippi River, lies a 40-acre plot of virgin forest among the nation’s largest expanse of natural peatland. In a landscape filled with billions of trees, it is part of only a small percentage that can be dubbed “old-growth” or relatively undisturbed. While much of the landscape was surveyed and auctioned off to logging companies in the late 1800’s, this parcel was left untouched. It is a claim not even the Boundary Waters can boast, so why did this tract of land escape the axe?

When surveying the land to be auctioned off to loggers (each plot measured and sold in 40-acre sections) surveyors mistook this tract of land for one previously recorded. This kept it undiscovered and protected as the rest of the landscape was cut down. Later, settlers tried to drain the wetlands and cut down the forest in the hopes of establishing a farming community. This effort was to no avail and acted as a safeguard until a mid-1900’s survey “discovered” the forest and declared it a public land off limits to logging or mining activities. Today, this old-growth forest contains trees older than the United States that reach heights of up to 130ft. Go check it out yourself and see what it feels like to travel back in time.

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Confessions of a big-tree Hunter

Oak Tree in Charleston, SC

My name is Hunter Wilcox, I am 23 years old and I am a self-proclaimed big-tree hunter. Nope, there is no double meaning in that but, in a sense, I wish there were.  

Ever since I found out about the National Big Tree Registry last spring, my life has never been the same. I became obsessed with the idea of finding fame and fortune in our unexplored forests. So, in May of 2020 I quit my job as a self-employed day trader and began a cross-country journey looking for trees that stand above all others. My mission was simple – find, measure, and catalogue the tallest, girthiest and leafiest trees across the country and upload them to an app called Big Trees Near Me. Using GPS technology, this app will allow users to find these documented rare specimens and even upload their own for others to enjoy (more about this app in upcoming blog posts).

What is the National Big Tree Registry and what is a big-tree hunter?

The National Big Tree Registry was created in 1940 by American Forests as a competition to catalogue the largest trees in the United States. This spawned the first wave of big-tree hunters as thousands searched our nation’s forests looking for uncharted beasts of all species. Eventually, it evolved into a detailed list with entrants from all 50 states. Currently accessible on American Forests’ website, the list is separated by species (genus) and is scored on a point system of height, radius, and canopy size. Many states have their own big tree registries which funnel into the national list if deserving of that title. Big-tree hunting is a small part of a much larger conservation effort to preserve and regrow our nation’s forests.

Why become a big-tree hunter?

Some people have never seen a tree before (don’t quote me on this) while others choose to abandon the comforts of human society and wrestle polar bears in Alaska. I think I fall somewhere in the middle but closer to the first guy. At the end of the day, being a big-tree hunter is all about immersing one’s self in nature. Whether or not you find that champion tree, at the very least, you reap the benefits of a walk in the woods. Here are a few benefits of walking in the woods that you wont hear on Dr. Phil:

  • Reduces stress
  • Boosts immune system
  • Improves sleep
  • Lowers blood pressure

Many champion trees require hours if not days of travel through the wilderness to locate, i.e. the white pines in the Boundary Waters (MN) or the western red cedars in the Tongass (AK). The journey is worth the reward; knowing that before you stands a tree older than America or taller than a skyscraper is an immeasurable experience. The best part about this hobby is that it is free! Enjoying nature is free, so go put down the Fortnite sticks, lace up your hiking boots and get after it.

California Redwood

Where do I start if I want to become a big-tree hunter?

The perfect starting point in your quest to land the big one is to choose a specific species of tree. This will lead you to certain regions of the country where climate dictates what grows and what doesn’t. As a rule of thumb, coniferous trees (trees with needles) are found in cold temperate areas, while deciduous trees (trees with leaves) are found most everywhere else. This didn’t narrow down your search in the slightest, however, I am in the midst of creating a detailed interactive map of America’s native trees and where to find them.

You very well may find a champion tree in Timmy’s backyard that survived the 300 years of urbanization, wildfires, disease, and logging, but this is unlikely. Most of the time, the ancient trees will be found in protected areas such as state and national forests or even on old estates (Mount Vernon still boasts trees that were planted by George Washington himself!).

Once I’ve found the tree, how do I measure it?

Minnesota’s DNR page has a much better explanation than I do. Click here for directions on how to properly measure a tree.

Thanks for making it this far in the post! For those still reading, I challenge you to go venture off into the wilderness, whether it be the patch of woods in your backyard, or one of the 154 National Forests spread across the country (state parks are a great place to look as well). What do you have to lose? That Nature Valley Bar isn’t going to crumble in your hand by itself, go out there and find that champion tree!