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Preserving Giant Trees

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Photo by Adobe Stock/Stephen

Did you know that trees have their own beauty pageant? Well, they do. In 1940, American Forests (called American Forestry Association at the time) spearheaded the National Register of Champion Trees to locate the largest living trees throughout the United States. The goal was to raise awareness of the importance of preserving mature trees, not only for their beauty, but also for their ability to protect watersheds, absorb greenhouse gases, and provide habitats for wildlife. More than 75 years later, this program is still running strong, with more than 700 Champion Trees registered to date. However, nearly 200 species are still not accounted for, and you can help fill that gap. All you’ll need is a measuring tape, a ruler, and a big tree.

You don’t have to look far to find one of these national champions, as all 50 states participate in the campaign. I’ve had the privilege of visiting the sites of a few Champion Trees, and, let me tell you, they’re impressive! I sat back and stared in awe when I considered not only their size, but also each tree’s age. Many of these champions were just wee saplings during the Civil War, with others dating back even further.

Now, you may be thinking you need to locate a tree like the famed giant sequoia in Tulare County, California. This beautiful giant measures in at a whopping 274 feet high, with a circumference of 1,020 inches! That’s big. But don’t worry, not all champions are so large. In fact, most champions would be considered tiny by comparison — they’re just giants for their own species. For example, the largest chaste tree is 24 feet tall and 132 inches around. It’s small by the sequoia’s standards, but huge compared with the standard 10-to-15-foot-tall chaste trees growing in most yards.

Consider the following rules when going for the crown. First, the tree has to be alive. Dead trees, even if they’re still standing, aren’t eligible. You’ll also need to determine if your specimen is an eligible species. The specimen must be either native to the United States; a nonnative but naturalized species; or recognized as a naturally occurring variety. Hybrids, unclassified varieties, cultivars, and ornamentals aren’t eligible. Also, you’ll need to determine if your chosen species is considered invasive in your state. Each state has its own definition of what qualifies as invasive, so a species acceptable in one state may not be acceptable in another, even though the register is nationwide. And finally, should the tree be crowned a National Champion Tree or a National Co-Champion Tree, it must be verified as alive and remeasured every 10 years, unless a larger nominee is discovered before then.

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Image by Adobe Stock Kurlin_Cafe

Take to the forests to find a tree that can dethrone a current champion, or to discover a species that has yet to be registered.

To determine if your tree’s size qualifies it for the register, first visit the National Register of Champion Trees database on the American Forests website. The database has an easy-to-use search function with both basic and advanced search features. You can search for species using both common and scientific names. Once you find your tree’s species, check out the current champion’s measurements, and then head out to take a few measurements of your own tree. If your tree’s numbers are larger than those of the reigning tree, you can nominate your find and attempt to unseat the registered champion.

The measurements you’ll need to include are the circumference of the trunk, the overall height of the tree, and the crown’s spread. To determine the correct way to obtain these measurements, consult the Measuring Guidelines Handbook available on the American Forests website. This handbook gives exact details on how to measure each tree type. Pay attention to the instructions, as each tree structure is different and requires different measuring techniques. The measurements are then computed to determine the tree’s overall points using the following calculation: trunk circumference (inches) plus tree height (feet) plus one-quarter of the tree’s crown spread (feet) equals total points. If the tree’s overall points are higher than that of the current reigning champion, your tree will qualify for nomination. The points for the reigning champion are listed in the database for you to use for comparison.

Once you’ve determined your tree qualifies for nomination, go to the online nomination form on the American Forests website to answer a few questions and get details on how to photograph your tree. You’ll be asked to include your name and address, the tree’s location, whether it’s on public or private land, if the landowner is in agreement on the nomination of their tree, and information on the person taking the measurements. Don’t let any concern about providing the tree’s location keep you from nominating your beauty. This information is for American Forests’ use only and isn’t disclosed to the public. Because the goal of the register is to protect trees, that information is kept out of the database. Only the owner of the tree has the right to share that information in other formats, if they choose. Once completed and submitted, the form will be reviewed, and someone will follow up if needed.

The National Register of Champion Trees began many years ago as a means to spark a protective spirit toward forests and trees, and it has been successful in that endeavor. Over the years, American Forests has planted millions of trees that span across all 50 states. To help keep this spirit alive, search around and see if you can find the next National Champion. You just might be able to dethrone a current reigning crown.


Kristi Cook and her family have been building their homestead for many years. Kristi shares their vast experiences through her articles and workshops, and on her blog.

Trees of Power: 10 essential arboreal allies

Partnering with trees allows us to build soil; enhance biodiversity; increase wildlife populations; grow food and medicine; and more. Trees of Power explains how we can work with these arboreal allies, specifically focusing on propagation, planting, and individual species.

This title is available here or by calling 866-803-7096.

Published on Dec 8, 2020

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