September Web Exclusive


        by Patrick White
        When people go to a city, they're often interested in seeing the tallest buildings. It's fun to marvel at these feats of human engineering. In the forest, we are similarly captivated by nature's towering trees. It's that fascination that led to the creation of the National Big Tree Program, overseen by American Forests (, a nonprofit conservation group that tracks the largest trees of each species in every state and nationally. Those involved with the program say the search for these sizable specimens is not only fun, but it also helps build knowledge of trees and forest health.

        The whole idea for the Big Tree Program began in 1940 in an article in American Forests magazine, explains Sheri Shannon, who coordinates the program today. "The forester who wrote the article wanted to locate the biggest trees--not the historic trees that were already protected, but the giants that were still standing in virgin forests," she explains. "American Forests took up that call, and for more than 70 years now we have been recognizing the biggest trees in the country." During that time, the program has been used as a model for similar international initiatives in Australia, New Zealand, South Korea and other countries.

        While "big trees" might prompt thoughts only of giant redwoods and sequoias on the West Coast, it's interesting to note that the first tree nominated as part of the program was in Connecticut (a chestnut oak), and today there are more than 780 national champion trees selected from all 50 states and Washington, D.C. Each state has a program coordinator, and often there are "tree teams" that help search out and investigate reports of big trees. Exceptional candidates are scored on the following point system: Trunk Circumference (inches) + Height (feet) + 0.25 Average Crown Spread (feet) = Total Points. From there, state champions in each species are named and submitted to the national organization, where national champions are crowned each year.

        These champions are recognized in the annual National Register of Big Trees. "There are more than 870 species and varieties that are eligible for inclusion," emphasizes Shannon. "It's not just huge trees that get included; there is also a class we call the Tiny Titans." These are the largest known examples of species and varieties that just don't tend to be very large. "Some of them look like any other tree and you could walk right past them. It might only have a score of, say, 30 points, but it could be the biggest tree of that species we have," she explains.

        Only three trees have remained on the list constantly since 1940, one being General Sherman, the giant sequoia considered to be the biggest tree in the world. Most others end up being replaced regularly, thanks to the work of "big tree hunters," whose passion is to search for big trees wherever they may be. "It's really an accomplishment for any tree to stay on the register for even two years," says Shannon. "There are new nominations all the time and trees are dethroned. And when trees get dethroned, people are upset and want to recapture the title by finding an even bigger tree. This is what big tree hunters do for recreation." In addition to reports from landowners, foresters and others, dedicated big tree hunters have also taken to using technology such as Google Earth to scan forest                                                                                                             canopies for potential candidates.

        Beyond the enjoyment and fascination that comes from hunting and viewing big trees, Shannon says there are very real scientific benefits as well. "Big trees are great to research because of what it tells us about the size and range of different species," she explains. "It helps us understand where and in what condition each species grows the best, and what forest ecosystem each needs in order to thrive." After all, if a tree is able to get that big, the conditions it is growing in must be helping in that accomplishment.

        Big trees have a social value as well, says Shannon. Just as Sequoia National Park was created to protect those special trees, some local and state governments have ordinances in place to protect trees of a certain size or age in order to preserve them. On a more personal level, big trees become a source of pride.

        Then there are the ecological benefits of large trees. "We like to say that 'bigger is better.' Big trees clean more air, clean more water, process more carbon, cool the environment," says Shannon, noting that some of the largest trees actually become their own microhabitat and ecosystem, supporting surrounding plant and animal life.

        Mary Tebo Davis with the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension helps to coordinate the Big Tree Program in New Hampshire, where she says there's an active group of volunteers dedicated to big trees. "We get tips all of the time from foresters, landowners and just interested people. Anyone can nominate a tree. We ask them for their best guess at the species and the circumference in inches at 4.5 feet off the ground. If it comes close to one of our current champs, we'll send a team out to measure it," she explains.

        Each county has a Big Tree team that follows up to measure and record the tree's circumference, height and crown spread, and to confirm the species. Each county has its own champion trees, and there are state champions that get reported to the national program. Though a small state, New Hampshire currently boasts four national champion big trees: white pine, black birch, pitch pine and balsam poplar.

        Davis says that part of the fun in taking part is the competition that develops between landowners, counties and different groups, all hoping to have the biggest tree. A database is currently being established to list the biggest trees in New Hampshire found on public land (those found on private land will be omitted to protect landowners).

        Davis says that new technologies are helping the state's Big Tree teams better locate and track individual specimens. "The program has been going on a long time, and sometimes trees are found on a lawn, but other times they are out in the middle of the forest, so we might have had a rough map or crude drawing of how to get to the tree, but often it was a challenge to find the trees," she explains. "Now we are using GPS on our trees and they can be located that way, so the mystery trees have become much easier to find."

        Kevin Martin is a volunteer in the program and is currently compiling a more detailed guidebook on that topic. He says he became hooked on the idea of big trees and has learned a tremendous amount about trees in the years he has traveled the state to see big trees. "I go out to measure big trees, including remeasuring those that haven't been measured since the 1960s or 1970s," Martin says. "If we are able to find those trees, they've usually gotten quite a bit bigger. Others, though, have gotten rot, and if it's been 30 years since they've been seen, we                                                                                   might find they've blown over."

        Big trees are often found in landscape settings where they were planted decades earlier and had a chance to grow large in the open without competition; other times, though, they are found deep in forest settings where growing conditions have been just right. Often those big forest trees are boundary trees, or those left when land was cleared for agricultural purposes, Martin observes. The hardest part of the program is having to tell a landowner with a champion tree that another tree beat it out, he says. "They get pretty discouraged. People do have pride in their big trees."

        In Pennsylvania, Scott Wade heads up the Big Tree Program and reports that people there have a similar devotion to big trees. "People really get attached to them," he states. Wade set up an online database of champion trees in that state, and he's always eager for additional reports and tips of big trees.

        As the sole volunteer for the program in Pennsylvania, he has been dependent on the help of service foresters in counties throughout the state to inspect and measure reported trees when they have time. "I'm hoping to get more volunteers in each county and create the 'Champion Tree Tender' program," Wade says. "That's starting to take off, and I have some very good volunteers who keep track of the champion trees in that county and can get me photographs and information on those trees, as well as quickly assess any new trees that have been reported."

        Shannon says that perhaps the best way to end up with a national champion big tree is to discover a large example of one of the 200-plus species that currently have no national champion. "We have a list of those species on our website and encourage people to hunt for them," she notes. Whether you discover a national champion or not, she points out that one benefit of the Big Tree Program is to simply get people out in the woods and give them an opportunity to appreciate trees.
        Patrick White is a freelance writer based in Middlesex, Vt. Over the past 10 years, he has covered a wide range of agricultural operations around the Northeast. He is always on the lookout for interesting and unusual stories. Comment or question? Visit and join in the discussions.

Reporting Big Trees
Reports of big trees in the Northeast can be made to the appropriate state coordinators of the American Forests National Big Tree Program. Most states have an online registry of state champion trees and more information about the program in that state.
Glenn Dreyer
Connecticut College Arboretum
Glenn Gladders
Delaware Forest Service
Jan Ames Santerre
Maine Forest Service
Ken Gooch
Massachusetts Department of Conservation & Recreation
New Hampshire
Mary Tebo Davis
UNH Cooperative Extension
New York
Gloria Van Duyne
New York State Department of Environmental Conservation
Scott Wade
Pennsylvania Forestry Association
Rhode Island
John Campanini
Rhode Island Tree Council
Danielle Fitzko
Department of Forests, Parks & Recreation
Photos, from top, courtesy of:
UNH Cooperative Extension
UNH Cooperative Extension
UNH Cooperative Extension