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'They're living history': Why these arborists search for Washington's tallest trees

Allie Ferguson
Mik Miazio at the base of the tallest tree in Tacoma's Point Defiance Park.

This story originally aired Dec. 31, 2016. 

Tacoma arborist Mik Miazio loves trees. He has loved them since he was a kid growing up in New Jersey.

"I remember climbing my first tree when I was a kid. As soon as I was able to, I would jump right in there and disappear. I’m in my own world right there," Miazio said.

It was this love that led Miazio to discover the tallest tree in Tacoma's Point Defiance Park. He noticed the giant Douglas Fir poking out of the canopy when he moved to Tacoma three years ago.

“I was just sort of curious about how tall these trees are. One day, I went on Google Earth and I took a virtual flight in between the canopy. I went to what I thought was the tallest tree and I took GPS coordinates. I bushwhacked my way there and then I took some measurements and eventually confirmed the tree is 217 feet tall," recalled Miazio.

When he first found the tree he'd been searching for on the internet, Miazio fell to his knees in admiration. Then he hooked up some ropes and climbed to the top to take in the beautiful view of the Cascade Mountains, Tacoma, Mount Ranier, and even Mount Baker. 

However, Miazio isn’t just a solo adventurer. He’s part of a national group of volunteer arborists and citizen scientists collecting data on tall trees called the Big Tree Program. The organization documents the tallest trees of each species in a national registry. Participants use special lasers and other measuring tools to determine the height, circumference, and canopy length of each tree. This often involves climbing several hundred feet up the tree to confirm measurements.

Miazio's boss and mentor, Zeb Haney, is the manager for Washington state's big tree program. The program started back in 1940 when a friendly rivalry emerged between states over who had the tallest trees. Handy added that it is important to know where the big trees are to preserve old growth forests as well as protect living history.

Credit Allie Ferguson / knkx
The tallest tree in Tacoma's Point Defiance Park is 217 feet tall.

"They've been in that spot for a long time before people lived there," said Haney. "You can see that in the way that they grow. The way the branches are formed, broken and regrown. In the hollows that creatures have lived in and kids have played in.”

Miazio also loves that these old growth trees are home to endangered species like the marbled murrelet. However, Miazio's ambition is deeply personal too.

“One thing that’s always in the back of my head is my brother," Miazio said. "He was murdered a few years back. One of the things he had was a great connection with nature and I did get an idea in my head that I would discover a tree and dedicate it to him."

Miazio also hopes that people will find peace in the forest. "You come here and you don’t have to be focused and strained. You can just be. And I hope that when people just are, they are good and full of love and even if there’s things that make people hard in their lives that that softens up and dissolves.”

That gets to Miazio’s next big dream, which is actually kind of small. He wants to share the wonder of the forest with everyone through their memories of trees. Miazio says everyone has a memory about trees and he hopes that by sharing those memories, strangers will connect and remember their love of nature.

Miazio is not a religious person but he says he has faith. For him, being in the forest is like being in church. So he keeps searching for tall trees, chasing that sacred feeling, and hoping others will share his dream.

Sound Effect producer Allie Ferguson has been making radio for nearly 5 years. She got her start at KUOW and has since traveled the country working for national news shows including WNYC's The Takeaway and NPR's Weekend All Things Considered. Allie won a 2016 Gracie Award, which celebrates women in media, for her work at KUOW. She enjoys telling surprising stories about passionate people.