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From the April 2011 Conservationist

The balmville tree, the oldest living eastern cottonwood in the United States

Silent Giants

National and state registries honor the country's big trees

By Jenna Kerwin

There is a secret kingdom in my grandparents' backyard. You can only get to it by going through the hidden portal in the big sugar maple tree.

Looking up the trunk of an American sycamore to the canopy
American sycamore (Photo: Susan
Shafer)

At least that's what I always thought growing up. I remember the tree being taller than the houses and so wide I could press myself against it during games of hide-and-seek. Cicada casings stuck to its bark and my cousin laughed as he picked them off and chased me with them. I remember swinging lazily in the tire swing attached to its branches, watching the squirrels prance higher and higher up the limbs. I wished I could have followed them to the top.

Such a tree naturally lent itself to imaginary games in other worlds-even if the "secret portal" to that world was nothing more than climbing a few low branches and jumping back down. That sugar maple always seemed more special than the other trees dotting the central New York landscape. To me, it was a champion of trees.

Across the United States there are trees just like this. You've probably seen these trees before-the ones that look far too big for their species, or so large they must be hundreds of years old. Not all of them may be doorways to secret kingdoms, but they are all eye-catching natural wonders of our world: some are contradictory centerpieces of urban streets; some wear the scars of time; and some are so grand, their histories are part of the town's personality. Each year, many of these trees are nominated as "champion trees," and a few lucky ones are even crowned national winners.

The program in charge of this arboreal contest is the National Register of Big Trees, spearheaded by the non-profit citizens' conservation organization, American Forests. In September 1940, American Forests magazine contained an article that invited people to find the biggest trees. This captured the public's interest, and the register was begun. Over the years, the register has gained more support, seen numerous name changes, and, perhaps most importantly, listed more than 700 registered champion trees.

The main goal of the national register is to educate the public about protecting and preserving our country's trees. The register helps garner public interest in this important topic by highlighting the pantheons of the arboreal world, and awarding special "champion" status to the juggernauts of each species.

Champion trees come in all shapes and sizes, but all are the largest of their species. As such, a champion tree can range from an eighteen-foot tall hazelnut with a five-inch circumference to an oak that is an incredible 100 feet tall with a twenty-two-foot circumference.

Nominated trees are reviewed by committee at the beginning of every odd-numbered year. Whether a tree is included in the list depends on how high it scores. Points are awarded based on the sum of the tree's trunk circumference, height, and ¼ of the average crown spread. The tree with the most points is crowned the national champion, which means they are the largest recorded specimen in their species. If a tree is not named a national champion, but has a high score, it remains on the list. These "challenger trees" are not big enough to qualify as a champion, but are still included in the database in case a current champion is not able to keep its winning status and must be replaced.

Looking at the sky through the branches of a tree with yellow flowers
Photo: Susan Shafer

Many states run their own state tree register, listing state champions; DEC maintains New York's Big Tree Register. Big trees are selected based on American Forests' criteria and the champions and challengers are included on its list. If a state champion is a potential national champion, it is nominated by DEC to become part of the national register.

Several of New York's own trees are currently listed as national champions and challengers. They include: a northern bayberry in Nassau County; a common juniper in Schenectady County; a black locust in Wayne County; a scarlet hawthorn and a Norway spruce in Oneida County; and a northern oak, a speckled alder, a prairie crab apple and a purple osier willow in Monroe County.

It's easy to nominate a tree to be part of the national and New York State registers (see sidebar below). You can check American Forests' and DEC's websites for species eligible or in-demand, and guidelines for nominating and measuring trees. If you need help measuring your tree, you can contact a local arborist or forester for assistance.

Many trees worthy of placement in the national and state registers of big trees are never nominated, and some lost their national champion status because they were never re-measured to update the listing. In some cases, though, current champions have been replaced simply because a larger tree was found and nominated. Be sure to explore your town, woods or even backyard for a champion near you. Remember to measure the tree periodically so it can be updated with the register and potentially keep any champion tree status it may win.

Whether there's a giant maple in your backyard with a swing tied to its branches, a towering weeping willow looming over a pond at the outskirts of town, or a huge oak hidden deep in the forest, champion trees are everywhere. Their size begs recognition and respect; their stature exudes something like magic. If you know of one of these trees, consider nominating it for a place on the National Register of Big Trees.


Jenna Kerwin is the staff writer for Conservationist, and is still trying to find a way back to the secret kingdom in her grandparents' backyard.

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Photo: Rich Clauss