YAKIMA – A forest of petrified trees has been unearthed in Central Washington, still standing where it was engulfed in lava and preserved more than 15 million years ago.
About 200 hickory, elm, maple and sweetgum trees were discovered by Clyde Friend, of Terrace Heights, who used a 90,000-pound excavator, a hammer and a chisel to uncover the forest.
Petrified wood has been found in Central Washington before, but most of the other fossil wood groves in the Columbia River Basalts are log rafts, transported to their resting spots between 17.5 and 6 million years ago by volcanic mudflows, said Thomas Dillhoff, a paleobotanist who examines fossil plants.
Scientists, rock enthusiasts and students from across the West have come to see Friend’s discovery, which is rare for both its quality and variety of trees.
Finding so many types of hardwood trees standing upright is uncommon, Dillhoff said.
“What is different is the type of trees that are standing there,” said Dillhoff, who has spent about three years examining the trees. The study was paid for by the Evolving Earth Foundation of Issaquah, a small, nonprofit group that promotes education and research on Earth science.
Central Washington was a humid, marsh land when the trees lived, Dillhoff said, much like modern-day Florida.
The small forest occupied a dried lake bed 15.4 million years ago but was submerged by water when the lake refilled, according to studies. Lava flows preserved the forest’s growth.
Friend, 50, has been looking for the petrified trees on his property since moving to the area in the late 1970s. He finally found them five years ago, embedded in sand-colored rock and mostly unremarkable.
Excavating one tree would take Friend a few days to a week. But when sliced and polished, the interiors revealed growth rings and bold colors.
“The wood is phenomenal,” said Friend, who works as a road excavator. “Every tree is different. I’m like a kid in a candy store.”
Friend has filled three storage units with the trees. He’s sold some of the pieces to the Yakima Valley Museum, including an elm trunk that stands about 5 feet tall. The tree will be included in a permanent exhibit planned for next year.
“It’s incredibly high-quality material,” said John Baule, museum director. “The color, the density of the wood, the fact there are so many different species represented on that site (is unusual). I’m so glad he was able to work with us.”