Every year the non-profit American Forests updates their registry of the biggest trees of each species in the country. Living on Earth’s Bobby Bascomb learns how to measure champion trees.
GELLERMAN: From the illegal hunting of big game in Africa to tracking the biggest trees in the United States. Every year the non-profit organization American Forests releases its online registry where foresters and your average tree hunter can list their biggest finds. Living on Earth’s Bobby Bascomb found one of the best tree hunters around in West Hartford, Connecticut.
[PARK AMBIANCE, PEOPLE MURMURING]
RICHARDSON: When I first started in this game in 1987 I knew something about trees but…..
BASCOMB: Ed Richardson’s not exactly the picture of a big game hunter but he’s bagged more big trees than anyone else in the state of Connecticut. We meet at a city park in West Hartford where he shows me his itinerary for the day.
RICHARDSON: We’re going to measure a large tree in the park here, in Elizabeth Park. And then I thought we’d stop by the Pinchot Sycamore, which is the largest tree in New England, of any kind. And it’s a monster.
BASCOMB: Ed Richardson is a retired insurance salesman. He wears hiking shoes and khaki pants with a striped shirt tucked in. He says the best place to hunt for big trees is in urban areas: old estates, cemeteries, and college campuses. Most American forests have been cut down several times over for farming.
RICHARDSON: So, you don’t really find many big trees in the woods.
BASCOMB: He leads the way down a path in the park to a wooded area. He wants to re-measure the state champion Golden Larch to be sure it’s still the biggest.
RICHARDSON: And we’re going to see how big this is.
BASCOMB: Ed walks around the tree with a tape measure.
RICHARDSON: And this is eight feet seven inches in circumference.
BASCOMB: The scoring for champion trees is a bit complicated. For every inch of circumference a tree gets one point. They get another point for every foot of height. And a quarter point for every foot of canopy spread. To measure the height Ed needs a clear view of the top of this Golden Larch.
RICHARDSON: I’m going to go down in that direction which is the only direction that I can possibly see through the canopies here.
BASCOMB: He pins the end of the tape measure to the base of the tree and measures out 100 feet down a path.
BASCOMB: He pulls out a rectangular silver case.
RICHARDSON: Ok, here’s what we do. My chlenometer is a little thing about the size of a pack of cigarettes, I guess you might say, if anyone knows what they are nowadays. But what I do is look through at the scale inside there. Come on, baby, what are you doing? Don’t tell me you’re in trouble. Boy, I don’t know.
BASCOMB: Can I help you?
RICHARDSON: I’m having trouble with it. Not with the machine. It’s my eye is the problem. Why don’t you take a try at it?
RICHARDSON: Don’t put your finger over the end because you’re looking through that little hole there. Take a look first off and see if you see a wheel in there or whatever the thing is that goes around.
RICHARDSON: Go up and down like this and see if the numbers change.
BASCOMB: They do. So, it’s like a white tape measure on a wheel kind of thing.
RICHARDSON: That’s right! Boy, that’s a good description. A white tape measure. Right. Now take a shot at the base of that tree. You’re looking at the base with your left eye and you’re looking at the crosshair there with your right eye.
BASCOMB: Ahh…so you have both eyes open.
RICHARDSON: Right, both eyes open. You gotta have to have two eyes to use this thing.
BASCOMB: (Laughs) ok. Ok, oh it goes backwards so 90 is at the top and then it goes down to 100.
RICHARDSON: That’s right.
BASCOMB: Ok, the scale is by …2,4,6….102?
RICHARDSON: Ah! That’s good! That’s good! I’m sure that’s right around what it is. It’s probably grown a hair since I measured it last.
[MEASURING TAPE WINDING UP]
BASCOMB: Ed winds his measuring tape back to the base of the tree where he picks his way through the brush to measure the width of the canopy above us.
RICHARDSON: Don’t go in here. That’s poison ivy, I see it.
BASCOMB: Ed comes up with 13 points for the canopy. Add to that 103 points for circumference and 102 points for height.
RICHARDSON: Three into five is eight….one….218 points for this tree. It remains the champion and probably always will unless it gets blown down or something.
[WOODS AMBIANCE, WALKING THEN WITH STREET SOUNDS]
BASCOMB: Next he wants to check out a large Asiatic Smoke bush. The bush is in front of a Sovereign Bank that used to be a Colonial home, built in 1780.
[ROAD SOUNDS, CAR GOES BY]
RICHARDSON: Ok, this is it. Boy, that’s a big one.
BASCOMB: Together we measure the height, circumference and canopy spread.
RICHARDSON: Would you just hold this? That’d be good. I think I can rig this around.
BASCOMB: And it earns a total of 78 points.
RICHARDSON: So, we’re going to go up to the car and we’ll look at the computer listing and see how many points the present state champion has.
BASCOMB: There are 861 native tree species listed on the national registry. But more than 200 of them have no champion right now. So the first person to nominate a Western Burningbush or a Seaside Alder, for instance, would have a national champion.
[SOUND OF CAR OPENING]
RICHARDSON: This is the master list. We’re going to look for the botanical name which is a strange one it’s: Cotinus coggygria.
RICHARDSON: There it is right there. The champion is 50, we’ve got 78. This goes way beyond it. So, we’ve got a new state champion here. Great, okay!
BASCOMB: Richardson’s found more than 150 state champion trees so this is all in a day’s work for him. But he says some people are extremely competitive.
RICHARDSON: Oh, in some states they’re just wild, people are obsessed with it.
SMITH: I’ve got a bee in my bonnet about Tennessee.
BASCOMB: Pete Smith is the national big tree coordinator for the state of Texas. The bee in his bonnet is about a pecan, the state tree of Texas. Currently Tennessee has the national champion pecan tree.
SMITH: A tree that I may need to go visit. Some disputed idea that it may be an English walnut rather than a pecan but I’m just throwing that out there.
BASCOMB: Pete Smith has been known to drive to other states to question the legitimacy of a big tree.
SMITH: One of our national champion cottonwood trees here in Texas where New Mexico had challenged it and it was going to be crowned a national champion. And I actually had our forester from El Paso drive up to Albuquerque and measure the tree to make sure it was measured the same way as our tree.
BASCOMB: And was it?
SMITH: No! Our tree ended up staying the national champ.
BASCOMB: Pete’s not alone in the Lone Star State when it comes to his enthusiasm for big trees.
SMITH: In a big game state like Texas where hunting is a big part of the culture here I think it sort of resonates with those folks to bag another trophy so to speak.
BASCOMB: Texas has enthusiasm, but California has the single largest tree in the country and the world. General Sherman is a Giant Sequoia that registers a whopping 1300 points on the American Forest Champion scale. But even California doesn’t have the most big trees on the national register. With 124 national champs that honor goes to….. Florida. Charlie Marcus is the national big tree coordinator for the state of Florida.
MARCUS: We have a number of species that don’t grow in any other states because our southern regions go down into the tropics.
BASCOMB: More than half of Florida’s champion trees live in the bottom third of the peninsula and don’t grow anywhere else in the country. So there’s not much competition. But all this talk of big trees really begs the question: Is bigger better?
MARCUS: By all means.
BASCOMB: Again, Charlie Marcus.
MARCUS 23: Those trees become micro-habitats all their own. There so old that you’ve got soil that’s actually formed there and you’ve got other plants that are growing out of the soil and you’ve got animals that are kind of dependent on those plants and those conditions for a micro-climate, so I would say a large tree takes on a life of its own and in most cases bigger probably is better.
BASCOMB: Big old trees can also tell us something about resilience. Starting in 1930, Dutch Elm disease practically eradicated North American Elm trees but some did survive. Now USDA scientists are looking at the immunity of those old living trees hoping to develop more disease resistant Elms.
BASCOMB: Back in Connecticut Ed Richardson wraps up the day with a visit to an old favorite.
RICHARDSON: This is the Pinchot Sycamore, which is the largest tree of any kind in New England. And it’s a monster.
BASCOMB: What do you think of when you look at trees that are this big and this old?
RICHARDSON: Well, it’s just a magnificent historical relic. I like their strength and their nobility. They’ve existed a long time on this earth and more are coming along, hopefully, if people will treat them right.
BASCOMB: And that’s the aim of the American Forests Competition. To create a passion for conservation so more little trees reach their full potential to grow into big trees in the future. For Living on Earth I’m Bobby Bascomb in Simsbury, Connecticut.
Living on Earth wants to hear from you!
P.O. Box 990007
Boston, MA, USA 02199
Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.
Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.
Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion
The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.
Energy Foundation: Serving the public interest by helping to build a strong, clean energy economy.
Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary hummingbird photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.