I Think I Will Never See A Tree That Cannot Be—Part 2

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One of my last jobs as a contract administrator for the U.S. Forest Service was the administration of a 500-mile and 2,000-corner boundary retracement. One of the contract requirements was the creation of new bearing or witness or pointer trees at each corner. This was not an urban survey: it was a rural retracement, with accuracy primary and precision secondary. These trees were to be identified by species and diameter with a bearing and distance from each monumented corner to the new tree. While in pre-contract discussions with the selected firm, not of my choosing, I stressed the importance of the proper identification of trees and why this provision was in the contract. Under the guidelines we were required to observe, if the potential contractor assured us it could meet this requirement, our hands were tied. Discussion indicated the survey crews were mainly trained in "city" retracements" and their rural experience was lacking. After negotiations were completed and the contract was awarded–over my written objections–the fiscal staff was happy with the price quoted (lowest quote, of course) and awarded the contract. I had a "funny feeling" it was the start of a disastrous and possible litigious relationship. When the final product started being submitted, the field work (the number calculations) looked adequate but the field notes were something else. Bearing trees were of two species, "Pine" and "Oaks." No others were identified. A field check indicated that 100% of the bearing trees were misidentified by species as well as diameters. (I would like to point out that a 100% field inspection was made of each corner. This increased our cost of contract administration by over 1,000%, which we had not budgeted.) The contract staff authorities tried to hold me responsible for the overrun for administration based on their decision of the contractor. (As a side note the contract was scheduled to run for six months but it took nearly two years and the weather in this period was virtually rain free and perfect for field work.)

After writing a "cure contract order" with a requirement that they hire a forester to be a part of their crew, "all hell broke loose" when he, too, was woefully uneducated in tree identification. Since then I have created and taught several courses in tree identification to the un-informed and as a result, hopefully, I believe I have put together a rather simple one day course in "Dendrology" that students can study from a book that usually takes two semesters in college.

This article is for the un-informed professional who is supposed to know all there is to know about retracements. It can also be used for the lay person who wishes to improve his/her knowledge). Additionally, it is for a professional person who stands up in court or who identifies him/herself on their letterhead as a retracement expert or specialist. I hope this article will give these experts an opportunity to expand their knowledge.

In 1799 when Andrew Ellicott surveyed the 31st parallel between Spanish west Florida and the United states, this Colonial surveyor identified the native species by their scientific names by genus and species. Today there can be no question what trees he was talking about. Remember, Ellicott was a surveyor and not a dendrologist. His technical knowledge gave us what the actual name of the trees were and not some made up or local names. Figure 1 is a page from his 1803 report of his 1799 survey in which he gave specific identification of the trees he observed for posterity.

While at the New York State College of Forestry I took my Dendrology course from "Wild Bill" Harlow, the author of one of the primary texts on tree identification. He would teach us while making whistles out of "moosewood" which is a species of Maple. At the end of the class he would play a song on the whistle. As a result we gave him the moniker "Moosewood Bill." By the end of our sophomore year we were expected to be completely knowledgeable with the common and Latin scientific names, and the correct identification of over 200 American trees. This information has been very helpful to me in the advancement of my career as a retracement surveyor. I am not a high tech person, but I still consider myself a "dirt" surveyor who depends on fundamental knowledge for Finding the Footsteps.

I believe the first thing we have to understand is "what tree are we talking about?" I have offered advice and professional testimony on such trees as Button Wood, Bee Tree, Spruce Pine, Cabbage tree and some that defy spelling. First we need to identify and make certain we are talking about the same tree. Over the years a collection of the various names used for certain trees have been assembled by numerous individuals. In all probability, every species of tree was probably used and referenced under one name or the other. The major species referenced by early surveyors are listed below.

I would like to point out that my research has not been able to identify that elusive, abundantly-identified tree called the "Spanish Oak." The identified leaves are from the same Black oak that is growing in my front yard. The reader can see the variety of leaves it produced (Figure 2). It is my belief that the Spanish Oak was actually black oak that had produced these elongated leaves which reminded the surveyors of a Spanish sword.

In order for us all to be on the same branch and refer to the same tree or trees, the following list is a partial compilation from numerous sources of deeds, surveys, articles, and experience of tree names that have been used over the years. Some of the names are very local and are not seen in other areas.

The Oaks
Two primary categories are found; broadly they are the White oaks and Red (Black) oaks. White oaks make better bearing trees. The Black oak class is inferior. White oaks have leaves that have rounded lobes without "prickers" at end of lobe. Bark may be whiter with shallow lobes.Red oaks have "V" shaped lobe usually with a small "pricker" at end of lobe. It is my opinion that the Spanish Oak (no scientific name) identified by early surveyors was probably a variety of Red Oak, in that the leaves were elongated and with a distinctive "Prickle" on the end of the lobe. The leaf had a distinctive look of what people thought a Spanish sword looked like.

The wood of the two oaks is distinguishable by examining the two wood cores. Looking at the core with a 10X Hand lens, the pores of the white oak wood has occlusions (tyloses) that plug the pores. They inhibit water from moving throughout the wood thus inhibiting wood decay. The red oak wood lacks these occlusions and as such wood will decay more rapidly. This leads the retracing surveyor to a greater possibility of finding the remains of white oak trees as compared to red oak trees.

In examining original bearing trees one may find exotic trees referenced: Live Oak, Bald Cypress, Palm, or Cabbage.

If you asked the uninformed he/she would probably say hardwood or softwood, or pine and oak. The answer is yes and no. There are softwoods that are hard and hardwoods that are soft. Hardwoods that keep their leaves and softwood trees that lose their needles. It can be said that they are unpredictable except for certain points of identification.

Once we have agreed on a name let’s look a little closer. In testimony I have had an opposing witness call a tree a basswood to have it turn out to be a magnolia. I had one opposing witness call a tree a Spruce pine only to have it be a white pine.

I was testifying in the case of Howell vs. the United States. A critical piece of evidence was the identification of a large blazed tree supposedly on the original line. The field notes called for WO. The Plaintiff’s surveyor presented white oak leaves he had obtained from the ground to identify the tree. I went out in the field and shot a twig from the tree to identify the tree. I confirmed its preliminary bark identification when the twig was identified as the fruiting body of a basswood. Also, the trunk of the tree, when hit with an ax, sounded like a bass drum. See Figure 3. The key identification element was the fruiting body in the lower right corner which is called pendulant. Forestry students have also given them a somewhat risqué name that will be disclosed on a personal basis.

Here are a few of my suggested principles on how to make common sense out of common trees. They are:
1. What time of year was the tree identified? Are you dealing with leaves, branches or others factors?
2. How is it identified in the record you have?
3. Does the tree have leaves or needles?
4. If leaves or branching, is it alternate branching or opposite branching?
5. If opposite, does it fit MADCapHorse (Maples, Ash, Dogwood, * Honeysuckle/Viburnum (Caprifoliaceae), Horse chestnut)?
6. Is it an anomaly in its class? For example, cypress, a softwood that loses its needles in winter, or live oak that keeps its leaves in winter?
7. If needles; What kind and how many?
8. Is the leaf unique? Ginkgo, etc.
9. Is it a pine? Number of needles.
10. Is it simple leaf or compound leaf?
11. Is the bark unique? For example, hickory, beech, cherry.
12. If none of the above work, wait for later issues of the American Surveyor for further information or obtain one of the books listed in the sidebar.

Just as a surgeon cannot learn to do a heart replacement from a book, I do not expect the professional retracement surveyor to become an expert dendrologist from this article, but I hope it will provide sufficient incentive for those who wish to expand their knowledge to the point that when called on each will study and be able to become conversant with tree identification suitable to meet the needs of the modern expert. I will cover more aspects of tree identification in future articles.

Walt Robillard has been surveying since 1948. His experience includes teaching in colleges and continuing education seminars, and writing. He has worked in private industry and spent 30 years with the U.S. Forest Service as a Regional Surveyor and expert witness. He is an attorney, forester, licensed surveyor, and expert witness, and has co-authored several survey books.

Suggested Reading

They following books, pamphlets and articles are recommended reading: • • Publication of your state forest commission. Each state has printed booklets of native trees. Also probably available through your county forest department. One example is Know your Trees, Mississippi Extension Service, State College, MS.
• Trees of the World, Hermes House, This is one of the best books I have seen. I wish I had had it in college and in my world travels. The colored illustrations are superb.
• Textbook of Dendrology by Dr. Wm. L. Harlow; John Wiley and Son., New York. (Moosewood Bill)
• Native Trees of Canada; Bulletin 61, excellent photographs, an old but great early book. Kings Printer, Ottawa, Canada, 1949 Trees of North America, Brockman, St. Martins Press, Hand drawings of excellent quality.
• The Book of Trees, Grimm, Hard cover excellent 1×1 drawings.

A 5.258Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE