FAIRBANKS — The first time Jim Smith saw it, he knew he was looking at something special.

Smith, whose job as a stewardship forester at the state Division of Forestry in Fairbanks entails helping people fireproof their homes, was working with a homeowner on Chena Ridge last August when he stumbled across a particularly large balsam poplar tree.

“I saw this huge tree and said, ‘Adam, I need to come back and measure this tree,’” Smith said, referring to Adam McDermott, the  homeowner he was helping that day. “I could tell right away it was a big tree, and I wanted to measure it.”

Smith had a sneaky feeling the tree could be the biggest balsam poplar tree in Alaska.

Almost a year went by before Smith returned two or three weeks ago to check on McDermott’s fireproofing project and to see if the big balsam poplar was still standing. He knew balsam poplars that big and old are prone to rot and it could have toppled.

It took Smith and McDermott a while to locate the tree again and when they did, they realized it wasn’t on McDermott’s property, but his neighbor’s.

But Smith couldn’t resist. He had to take some quick measurements to satisfy his curiosity. The tree had a 27-inch diameter and was approximately 90 feet tall.

“I knew just by measuring the diameter that we had something special,” Smith said.

Record numbers

Realizing he had found what could be a record tree, Smith contacted property owner Ginger Ryan to see if she and her husband would give him permission to take official measurements of the tree with the intent of nominating it for the Alaska State Register of Big Trees, the official list of the state’s largest, measured tree species.

On Friday, Smith returned with Ryan and state research forester Brian Young to take official measurements of the tree, located in a valley below Ryan’s house.

The official numbers were: girth, 88.2 inches; height, 89 feet; crown spread, 44. The tree’s total score of 188.2 points (girth + height + .25 of the crown spread) was almost 40 points higher than the current record balsam poplar listed in the Alaska State Register of Big Trees.

The current record is 151 points for a tree measured along the Kuskokwim River at Vinasale, an old, abandoned Indian village and trading post about 20 miles south of McGrath.

“What’s amazing about this tree is that it’s also not only the largest balsam poplar on the list, it’s also larger than any aspen or paper birch,” Smith said, noting two other prominent Interior tree species.

The largest paper birch on the list of Alaska’s biggest trees, located in Trapper Creek, has a score of 174 and the biggest quaking aspen, measured on Johnson Road in Salcha in 2009, has a score of 164.

“This is now the second-largest species of tree in the Interior,” Smith said. “That’s pretty impressive when you knock down two species of trees.”

While impressive by Alaska standards, the tree does not measure up nationally. The biggest balsam poplar in the U.S. was measured in Sequim, Wash., in 2009 and has a girth of 21 feet, 3 inches, almost three times the tree Smith discovered, and is 148 feet tall.

If approved as the new record balsam poplar in Alaska, the tree also would be the third from the Fairbanks area added to the Alaska State Register of Big Trees since 2009. In addition to the record aspen tree found in Salcha, the biggest black spruce in the state was found on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus in 2009, also.

Unknown age

Neither Smith or Young could say how old the tree is without taking a core sample but according to average growth rates for balsam poplar in the Interior  — 0.4 to 0.5 millimeters per year in diameter — it could be more than 200 years old, Young said.

“Or it may have just grown really fast considering the good site,” he wrote in an email. “We have some of the best growing conditions in the state for trees.”

Smith said he won’t take a core sample of the tree because he’s worried about damaging it.

“I’d hate to open it up and see 5,000 carpenter ants come out,” he said. “That’s probably what will kill the tree — fungi rot and carpenter ants following it up.”

The tree appears to be in good condition, both Young and Smith said. It has good, thick bark and there are no signs of visible rot. It will keep growing as long as it remains standing, Young said.

While they are the northern-most tree in Alaska and one of the fastest-growing trees in the state with growth rates up to 5 feet per year, balsam poplar get little respect, Smith said. Most people simple refer to them as cottonwoods, which is incorrect, he said.

Black cottonwoods, a close but larger relative to the balsam poplar, are found south of the Alaska Range but trees north of the range are called balsam poplar, Smith said.

“Most people look down on poplar,” Smith wrote in an email. “It seems to have a bad name because of all the seed it drops on cars and in rain gutters.”

Balsam poplar are a short-lived tree and rarely live to be 80, another reason people don’t like them, he said. They are susceptible to fungi and rot very quickly, Smith said.

“If I had a big poplar next to my house I would cut it down before it falls,” Smith wrote.

Fortunately for Ryan, the property owner, the tree isn’t anywhere near her house and she has no plans to cut the tree down. She thinks it’s cool having the state’s largest balsam poplar on her land.

“It’s kind of fun having it on my property,” she said. “It’s kind of a neat feature to have.”

Contact staff writer Tim Mowry at 459-7587.