This is an excerpt from Utah State Magazine's Spring 2022 edition, out now, with the theme "Tiny Things, Big Impact." The full article is available on the magazine's website, utahstatemagazine.usu.edu.
For most of summer 2020, Bella Wetzler ’23 and others from the Lutz research team worked and camped in relative isolation among the towering old-growth forests of Yosemite National Park.
It was June, in the midst of the pandemic, and the team of eight students and seasonal employees had agreed to limit contact with the outside world so they could move forward with measuring and monitoring every woody stem on the 60-acre research plot.
The group just returned to camp one evening for dinner when a fast-moving windstorm began churning branches of sugar pine and white fir high overhead. A wildfire had burned the area seven years earlier, and Wetzler was well aware of the danger strong winds could pose, toppling snags that weighed upward of 10 tons. What she didn’t expect were the pine cones.
“Sugar pine cones are huge,” she says. “They can get up to 22 inches long. The wind started knocking them out of the trees, and it sounded like bombs were dropping all around us.”
Everyone scrambled for their hard hats, she says, and no one was hurt.
The group was working three forest plots that Jim Lutz, associate professor of wildland resources at Utah State University, meticulously assesses every summer, as he has for the past 13 years. Lutz studies Big Trees — not necessarily the heavyweight species like coast redwood or giant sequoia — but the biggest trees in any given forest, the top 1% of matriarchs by weight, those with trunks reaching more than 4 feet in diameter in old-growth forests of the West.
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