By Bryant Smith
In September 1940, concerned forester Joseph Stearns authored an article in this magazine entitled “Let’s Find and Save the Biggest Trees.” He ended the article with an appeal: “If an organization is necessary to accomplish this, then let’s organize. Or, and this might prove more immediately effective, let every tree lover, every forester, every lumberman rally behind some established national forest conservation organization able and willing to fight for the preservation of our biggest tree specimens.”
American Forests immediately rose to the challenge. The National Big Tree Program was established that same year and the national register of American Forests Champion Trees — then called the American Big Trees Report — was published the following year. The national register in 1941 included 77 champions. Today, there are 781 and the program is active in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
Of course, the number of champions in the register is not the only thing that’s changed. In 1989, The Davey Tree Expert Company came on board as the official sponsor of the program. In the quarter-century since, they have helped increase awareness about champion trees’ vital role in the environment and produced one of the program’s most popular publications — the National Big Tree Program calendar.
Now in its 75th year, the program has become stronger than ever as we continue to advance the scientific rigor of the nomination process. In 2013, two working groups — the Eligible Species Working Group and the Measuring Guidelines Working Group — were established, bringing experts together to address some of the most challenging questions surrounding the identification of champion trees. Earlier this year, thanks to months of work by the Measuring Guidelines Working Group, American Forests published the comprehensive Tree-measuring Guidelines Handbook to help nominators of champions navigate the complex science of measuring trees, including how to calculate leaning trees, trees on sloped ground and crowns that cannot be accessed. The handbook also sets clear standards for measuring multi-stemmed trees — all to help ensure accuracy and integrity in the register.
Through several name changes, digitalization, updated rules and more, the program’s core message has remained the same: Regardless of size, all trees are champions of the environment. American Forests Champion Trees represent the potential of all trees.
Finding, measuring, cataloguing and publishing the nation’s largest trees is no small feat. It’s all made possible by a vast network of supporters, from the Big Tree Coordinators in every State to sponsors like The Davey Tree Expert Company.
And, at the start of the whole process, there are those who find these trees. Anyone can discover and nominate a champion tree. But, some people, once they get the taste of it, never stop. They are the Big Tree Hunters — champion tree enthusiasts and adventurers who head out into the unknown seeking new trees. A few Big Tree Hunters have shared some of their stories for the 140th Anniversary Edition of the magazine that started it all.
CO-FOUNDER OF THE NATIVE TREE SOCIETY
Why did you become a Big Tree Hunter?
I used to read a profile of a champion tree in each American Forests magazine. I thought they had all been found but soon realized that was not the case. Armed with a degree in environmental studies and forest biology, I went to work mapping old-growth forests of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I had over a dozen national champs in my first year there and was setting new park records. The passion struck.
Do you have a favorite among the trees you’ve nominated
The eastern hemlock, Virginia pine, mountain silverbell, Carolina hemlock… Oh man, all of them.
What advice do you have for aspiring Big Tree Hunters or measurers?
Take note of the ecology of the species: where it gets big, where it doesn’t and what it associates with. Look at land position and where they tend to do best. This will hone your search and greatly increase your success rate.
Robert Van Pelt
WASHINGTON STATE BIG TREE COORDINATOR
How did you become a Big Tree Hunter?
My passion for trees blossomed in college and then really took a leap forward when I saw the book “Wisconsin Champion Trees” by Bruce Allison. Here were the extremes of the tree world, all cataloged. Several were in and around Madison, and I just had to visit them. After some more digging, I learned that many states kept records for trees, and that a master list for the nation was kept by what was then the AFA — now called American Forests. I ended up updating the dimensions of many of the current Wisconsin champs and even nominating a few new ones myself. Then, in 1985, I spent a summer as a cook in Olympic National Park. Learning that the national champion grand fir grew only a few hundred feet away from the lodge, I tracked it down only to discover that it was a log — a moss-covered log, at that. I contacted American Forests to find out where the current champion was, but they did not even know the former crown-holder was dead. It was then that I learned that Washington was one of the only states not to have a big tree coordinator. This was odd, I thought, since Washington has some of the largest trees in the world! I volunteered for the position and began to track down potential new champions. Together with Seattle arborist Arthur Jacobson, I began exploring the Olympics and Cascades. Within a few years, Washington went from having 13 national champs to having 50!
How did you first discover or come to nominate the Sitka spruce? How about the common pear?
I have probably tried every possible method to track down big trees, but still one of the best ways is to talk to people. That is how I first came to see the Quinault Lake spruce, in 1985. I was freaking out — here I was, a young kid from the Midwest and may have just uncovered a national champion! My glory was short-lived, however, as a controversy immediately arose about which tree was really the largest. Sitka spruce requires nurse logs to get established. If the logs were from gigantic trees, the root systems of the trees that establish on top of them become gigantic, often with bizarre shapes. Such is the case with these two trees, even though their nurse logs had rotted away centuries earlier. My friend Arthur suggested to American Forests that the nominators of the two trees re-measure both trees on the same weekend with the same equipment. This brilliant suggestion provided me with my first opportunity to meet the legendary Maynard Drawson. To call Maynard a colorful character would be a gross understatement. He was a barber, historian, comedian and tree hunter, with a gift for storytelling. It was a weekend I will never forget. In the end, the trees were declared co-champions. I was able to spend more time with Maynard, and he is the first one who mentioned a giant pear tree in an onion field near Walla Walla. When I tracked it down, I was truly amazed to see a pear tree as big as an oak!
Do you have a favorite among the trees you’ve nominated?
That’s a tough one. The Sitka spruce and vine maple are special to me, because they were my first — in 1986. The intermountain bristlecone pine was a special find — and has a special story behind it.
OREGON CERTIFIED ARBORIST
Why did you decide to become a Big Tree Hunter?
My time in forests had mostly been exploring for fun, mainly to see what was out there, whether small flowers, trees or mossy rocks. At some point, I read about other tree explorers on the West Coast and the big trees they had found in northern California. I decided I could find a few previously discovered giants and eventually located several of the largest and tallest redwoods in northern California. Little did I know, well-known researchers like Dr. Steve Sillett of Humboldt State University and Big Tree Hunters like Michael Taylor had seen photos I’d posted online. Maybe they could tell I keep my mouth shut about locations. Or maybe it’s because I love trees. But after about a year, they both contacted me independently, and I began joining them on explorations, along with other big names of the Big Tree world, like Robert Van Pelt. They taught me basics about measuring trees and what they look for in the forest to try and find new giants or world record trees. I enjoy looking for the biggest and tallest trees along the West Coast, but what I appreciate more is learning about what these species are capable of.
You nominated a coast redwood this year that fell just shy of becoming a new champion. How did you find it?
When we hit the forest, we explored new territory that was previously unexplored and overlapped old stomping grounds as well, double-checking for trees that may have been missed. Some of these giants are visible between the trees and brush for a matter of seconds while bushwhacking and could be missed in the course of talking in the woods. So we cover new ground and old.For pure visual impact, this new coast redwood discovery (one of several), blows away the General Sherman giant sequoia when it comes to photographic illustration showing human next to trunk for scale comparison. The Sherman has more cubic feet, but the coast redwood has a broader trunk that’s jaw-dropping in photos. One key to finding these trees is to not accept the belief that they have all been found. It takes an open mind. As Dr. Robert Van Pelt says in his book, “Forest Giants of the Pacific Coast,” “there is always a bigger one out there somewhere.”
THE PEOPLE’S CHAMPIONS
Every tree that is nominated to be an American Forests Champion Tree is allotted a number of points based upon its measurements. To become a champion, it must have the most points of any other known tree of its species. If trees are within five points of each other, co-champions are crowned. Trees with 650 or more points are known as mega-trees.
But while measurement buffs could talk about this stuff all day (If you are one, check out our Measuring Guidelines Handbook for all the juicy details at americanforests.org/bigtree), many average Champion Tree enthusiasts are more interested in the charm of these trees than their “stats.” That’s why Big Tree Madness is such a hit. For the past three years, Big Tree Madness has taken place online during the NCAA’s March Madness in March and April. It’s a chance for people to vote for their favorite tree — for whatever reason they choose. Since the first Big Tree Madness in 2013 we’ve had some majestic and even unexpected winners.
The first winner of Big Tree Madness was the champion Ozark chinkapin. At a modest 62 feet, it’s not what many people think of when they hear the words “big tree.” But, its size is impressive when you take into account that the Ozark chinkapin is a member of the chestnut family, susceptible to the dreaded chestnut blight and, consequently, a species of conservation concern. Maybe that’s part of why it means so much to the legions of fans who voted for it. Not only is the wood of this amazing tree rot-resistant, it proved itself resistant to defeat in Big Tree Madness as well.
The winner of the second annual Big Tree Madness competition was the champion coconut palm from Hawai‘i that came to be affectionately known as “Coco” throughout the course of the competition. Part of Coco’s special charm was that the tree was located in a culturally unique area on the island of O’ahu. According to Hawai‘i’s big tree coordinator, Sheri Mann, Coco was “part of an ancient coconut grove located in the Hāwea heiau complex and Keawawa wetland on O‘ahu. The property contains numerous petroglyphs, many ancient rock formations, agricultural terraces, burial sites and Hāwea heiau, a Hawaiian temple.” This sensitive ecological area is protected as a cultural preserve. All of this helped make Coco a fan favorite, even receiving social media support from Hawai‘i’s then-governor, Neil Abercrombie. Sadly, Coco fell in a storm later that same year.
The latest champion tree chosen as a favorite by online voters is an eastern burningbush. This particular burningbush has been an American Forests Champion Tree since 2002. What sets this species apart is the shape and color of its fruit. They are thought to resemble little red hearts that can be seen as bursting with love as the seeds are released. This has made the burningbush very popular among young lovers and the birds, who can eat the poisonous fruit. But the secret to its success in Big Tree Madness may have been the love that Missourians have for the champion trees. Yes, this is the second Big Tree Madness winner to hail from the Show-me State.
Champion Trees come in all shapes and sizes! What champion tree are you? Take the quiz at buzzfeed.com/americanforests.
Bryant “Spoon” Smith began his career restoring vacant lots for Baltimore’s Parks and People Foundation. He has since worked on research initiatives at the Forest Service’s Northern Research Station in New York City and managed landscape restoration projects for Bluewater Baltimore. Bryant is a licensed pilot who, in his spare time, provides disaster relief services to disenfranchised communities. He joined American Forests in 2014. As the manager of Urban Forest Programs, he also heads the National Big Tree Program.