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Mill Neck tulip tree could be NY's tallest

A look up the 169-foot tulip tree near

A look up the 169-foot tulip tree near Shu Swamp Nature Preserve in Mill Neck believed to be New York State's tallest known tree. (May 31, 2012) Credit: Barry Sloan

A tree grows in Mill Neck -- and it's the tallest in the state, according to a local naturalist.

The specimen -- a slender tulip tree just outside the northeastern border of Shu Swamp Nature Preserve -- stretches high into the sky, disappearing in a canopy of lush leaves.

It is 167 feet tall, according to Daniel Karpen, a Huntington engineer, environmental consultant and inventor -- more than eight feet taller than the state's current tallest recorded tree.

"I knew this was a tall one when I first saw it," said Karpen, 64, who has watched the tree grow for 40 years. The clogs-wearing character is known on Long Island for his impassioned advocacy of plants and animals. (He once launched a letter-writing campaign in Huntington in the voice of a largemouth bass when the environment in the pond at Heckscher Park was being threatened.)

"I was quite amazed," Karpen said last week in Shu Swamp of the tree's measurements, which he gave a two-foot margin of error. "Just look at this stuff! Look up!"

Karpen arrived at the height using trigonometry and an angle-measuring device called a clinometer, but admitted more sophisticated surveying equipment would produce a more accurate reading.

A 158.3-foot white pine in upstate Adirondack Park currently is listed as the state's tallest by the Native Tree Society, an online interest group. The state's tallest tulip tree, located in Zoar Valley in western New York, is 156 feet, the group said.

No official records are kept on tree heights, though the state Department of Environmental Conservation maintains a Big Tree Register with "champions" based on height, trunk circumference and crown spread.

The Mill Neck tree is about 100 years old and 34 inches in diameter, Karpen said.

"It doesn't count as the national champion. It counts as the tallest tree in New York State," he said, shrugging. "That's all it has going for it."

The world's tallest known living tree, a coast redwood called Hyperion in northern California, is more than 379 feet tall.

Bob Leverett, co-founder of the Eastern Native Tree Society, warned that clinometers, though common protocol, can lead to "over-measurements by otherwise competent individuals." Lasers are preferred, he said.

Karpen's finding, if accurate, "is significant in the sense that 167 [feet] for a tulip tree in Long Island would pretty much be up there for the limit for that species for that latitude," Leverett said, adding a representative of his group would soon check the tree's height.

Frank Reiser, a natural history professor with Nassau Community College who leads classes through Shu Swamp, has measured Karpen's tree and verified it is at least taller than 155 feet. Leaves at its top prevent more accurate measurements at this time of year, he said.

Karpen, who measured the tree in April before the leaves had grown in, said there is plenty of time for others to try their hand at checking the height.

"This tree is still growing! It hasn't stopped growing," he said, predicting in awe, "It could go to 180 feet easily."

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