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One of the Pacific Northwest's tallest, oldest ponderosa pines has died

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VANCOUVER, Wash. (AP) - One of the oldest and tallest ponderosa pines in the Pacific Northwest has died with little fanfare after hundreds of years.

The so-called "Big Tree" was a well-known attraction for tourists driving through the Columbia River Gorge and was for decades the centerpiece of an interpretive site for travelers headed to Mount Adams, The Columbian reported.

The massive specimen near Trout Lake in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in southwest Washington state was declared dead last year but it was left standing and the news of its demise is not widely known, the paper reported.

The Big Tree contained about 22,000 board feet of lumber - enough wood to frame almost one and a half 2,400-square-foot homes.

No one from the U.S. Forest Service is quite sure of the tree's age. The web page devoted to the Big Tree pegged it at about 370 years old, but Jon Nakae, a scientist with the Mount Adams Ranger District, thinks it's likely more than 500 years old.

Nakae can't count the rings of the giant tree to determine its age because he doesn't have a sampling tool long enough to get all the way through the Big Tree's trunk.

The Forest Service could cut it down to know exactly how old it was, but agency officials say it's worth more standing.

It survived an untold number of forest fires and the estimated magnitude 9 Cascadia earthquake of 1700.

Ponderosas are typically found in the Intermountain West rather than on the west side of the Cascade Mountains because they prefer drier, warmer conditions rather than the humid forests of coastal areas.

But the Big Tree may have benefited from its unusual location by getting more moisture than similar trees east of the Cascades, said Kevin Zobrist, associate professor of forestry at Washington State University.

According to the book "Champion Trees of Washington," published in 1996, the Big Tree was 22 feet around and 213 feet tall, though Nakae said it was 202 feet tall in 2015.

It wasn't the biggest known ponderosa alive on Earth, but it might have been the tallest.

A ponderosa on the Yakama Indian Reservation, which also recently died, was shorter but considerably stouter and thus the biggest ponderosa in Washington state.

The world's largest known living ponderosa named Big Red sits in Oregon's La Pine State Park. It is more than 500 years old, nearly 29 feet around and 162 feet tall.

Its girth made it bigger, but the Big Tree towered over it by about 40 feet.

Ponderosas typically live between 300 and 600 years, Zobrist said, so the Big Tree was well within its twilight years.

The tree was already in rough shape from old age, a regional drought, insect damage and perhaps years of visitors' footsteps crushing the soil around its roots.

A Western Pine beetle attack that began about three years ago finally killed it last year, Nakae said.

"It was really evident the beginning part of last summer, the crown started to fade," he said.

Now the Big Tree might be more aptly named the Big Snag.

The Forest Service closed the picnic area near the base of the tree to protect the public from any falling dead branches.

But because it's leaning away from the road and because it's valuable to wildlife, it will be left standing.

Forty percent of species in the national forest rely on old snags for habitat, Zobrist said.

"Ironically, the tree can provide more life in its death than it did when it was alive," he said.

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