Fans of mighty trees

were happy when Susan Orlean’s recent New Yorker article focused on a sylvan topic — The Tallest Known Tree in New York Falls in the Forest. Yet it rose some hackles in arborist circles as well.

Yes, the January 2022 article actually singled out a white pine in that dated all the way back to 1675: good. Trees do not usually receive such focused treatment in The New Yorker (perhaps because there are so few forested areas in the City? But check out John McPhee’s wondrous Pine Barrens coverage, culminating in a classic 1968 book.)

The profiled pine grew to 160 feet tall, and fell only when a neighboring tree crashed down upon it. Again, good coverage of a tree story, and stuff happens, as is said.

But, said my dendrological friends, the article was so silly! It concerned itself with the invention of Mr. Potato Head and the Carole King/Gerry Goffin’s classic The LocoMotion to somehow chart human progress as the tree stretched up and out in its Adirondack environs. And it seemed to make fun of the practice of measuring champion trees, and even the biggest specimens themselves, jibing the living circumstances of some as cushy – “most live pampered lives, getting fat in the luxury of a suburban lawn or a wide-open pasture.”

I somehow don’t think our friends at the Official Registry of Champion Trees would agree that being a champion tree in any place, at any time, was an easy existence. Still, Orlean managed a popular tone that differs refreshingly from some of the tomes released by the environmentalists. But being a champion tree is no laughing matter.

The Official Registry of Champion Trees comes out every year, compiled by the venerable outfit American Forests. It features the very biggest of each tree’s species, as reported to the organization in the most current year. In 2021, 561 trees held the title, but that figure doesn’t quite reflect the ardor of nor miles trekked by citizens vying to get their tree on the list. American Forests has worked for over 140 years to protect and preserve forests. Over 900 Champion Trees have been found and measured to date by tree lovers from all backgrounds: backpackers, arborists, school classes and land owners. American Forests supples documentation of these majestic giants on its website should the public wish to check them out. 

The enterprise was first launched to engage the public in forestry activities. National Champion Trees can be discovered in rural and urban landscapes, scattered throughout forests and fields, along roadways and (yes, Ms. Orlean) in suburban backyards. Discover, measure and nominate the largest trees you can find. The public is welcomed to measure a contendor and compare it to the current National Champion. It’s a point system with no cheating.

Here is the  formula:

x = Tree Trunk Circumference (Inches)
y = Tree Height (Feet)
z = Tree’s Average Crown Spread (Feet)
x + y + (z/4) = Total Points

Think your nominee can match the dimensions of the soaring Cupressus nootkatensis, in Washington State, with a trunk circumference of 454 inches, a height of 124 feet, and a crown spread of fully 28 feet?

How about the Arizona Alder in New Mexico? Its trunk circumference is 199 inches and its height is 128 feet, while its crown spread is 58 feet. The Pumpkin Ash, in Missouri, offers a trunk circumference of 196 inches, a height of 104.5 feet, and a crown spread of  78 feet.

Remember, this isn’t a beauty contest. Measurable size rules in the Champion world. Still, six photographs of each tree are required for for a nomination to be considered fully eligible. You’ve got to think physical beauty would matter to some extent in the judging, even the gnarled and rough-skinned beauty of the elderly.

The National Register of Champion Trees works with state-level Champion Tree Programs and volunteers from the National Cadre of Tree Measuring Experts to confirm the validity of nominations and the credible.

But here’s the thing. If you might be thinking of a road trip to visit these beautiful monsters – I know I was – American Forests remains closemouthed about the location of any tree either nominated or listed, in an effort “to protect the health and wellbeing of large trees.” And that is that. “Written and verbal inquiries requesting the location information of National Champion Trees will be declined.” There is to be no cloning, no seed propagation, and neither age nor historical value matter. Just size. Get the stats in before your favorite blows over in a stiff wind.

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