Mark Torok beside a national contender button-mangrove. Credit: Mark Torok

When a new tree is submitted from Florida for the National Register of Big Trees, chances are Mark Torok is the person who measured the nominee. In the six years that he has been with Florida’s Champion Tree Program, Mark has measured and verified more than 220 Florida champions and 130 national contenders. That includes approximately 86 current and former national champions, as well as measurement updates for the 10-year rule.

Mark is the senior forester for the Florida Forest Service Cooperative Forestry Assistance Program and the state forester for Broward, Miami-Dade, Monroe and Palm Beach Counties. Given his ideal location, it makes sense that he enjoys going to the beach to surf, fish and hike and landscaping with plants and trees that attract beautiful wildlife such as butterflies and hummingbirds. Oh, but we can’t forget that part of the fun is also eating at some good restaurants, too.

For someone who has measured the country’s biggest trees, you have to wonder if he can lay claim to nominating any of Florida’s national champions. He can. Mark is the nominator of the national champion cocoplum in Pompano Beach, located in a park where he played soccer and tee ball as a kid. His next potential champ is a mango tree behind the house where he grew up in Pompano Beach.

When asked about his favorite trees, Mark lists them based on size. He says his favorites among his “not so big champions” are the Jamaica caper (62 points) in Key Largo, the roughbark lignumvitae (137 points) in Key West and the black ironwood, or leadwood (110 points), in Lignumvitae Key, an island in the upper Florida Keys. Of the bigger sized champs, his two favorites are the same species — the former and current (260 points) champion green buttonwoods, or button-mangroves, both in Palm Beach. “I think they look very majestic-looking, like something out of a fairy tale. They are extremely larger than what you typically see in the landscape and have such gnarly-looking bark that catches your eye!”

So how does he do it? What’s his technique? Mark is in the field about 50 percent of his work time. “I use a diameter tape or logger’s tape for circumference, a clinometer for height and a 100’ logger’s tape or a 120’ reel in measurement tape for the crown measurement. Recently, I have added a green laser pointer to my arsenal to help with measuring tree crown. The laser pointer helps you know when you are at the edge of the tree canopy. I also use a GPS unit for tree location and my laptop and Google Earth for mapping the trees.”

Mark (on right) standing at the base of one of his favorite Florida champions, the kapok tree. Credit: Mark Torok

On a few occasions, Mark has had to use Joseph Nemec, a park ranger in his 60s, as his GPS. While updating measurements for trees in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park and Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park, Mark had to rely on Nemec for directions to find trees that hadn’t been visited in more than five years. Many trees were hundreds of feet away from any road or trail, and without a compass most would be lost in the middle of a tropical hardwood hammock —a dense canopy forest. At times, Mark wasn’t sure if Nemec knew where he was going, but in the end he led them to the right tree. Mark thinks “Joseph had a GPS system built inside him.”

Florida reigns supreme with 130 national champions, but that doesn’t mean Mark’s work is done. He says his eyes and ears are always open for big trees. Mark encourages everyone, including employees who work for natural areas, arborists, horticulturalists and tree enthusiasts, to hunt for big trees and promote Florida’s Champion Tree Program to their friends. Several trees are on lands open to the public and some parks, gardens and municipalities provide guided tours of their champion trees, such as the Vizcaya Museum and Garden in Miami-Dade County where Mark recently gave a measurement demonstration on how to measure champion trees. The tour ended perfectly when they discovered a pigeon-plum was one point larger than the current champ. If no other nominees are submitted, the pigeon-plum will become a new co-champion in the spring 2013 National Register.

“Doing work for the National Big Tree Program and the Florida Champion Tree Program is probably my favorite aspect of my job. I enjoy seeing the excitement and happiness in the tree owners faces when they find out their tree is a champion. These programs have increased my tree identification skills tremendously as well. These programs have taken me to many places I have never been before and many places not open to the general public. I have also been provided with many opportunities by these programs to network with many wonderful people who are landowners and/or employees for parks or gardens that I would have never met. Some of these people I have become good friends with. So, I will forever be thankful I had the opportunity to work with the National Big Tree Program and the Florida Champion Tree Program.”

Keep up the great work, Mark.