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Parks Are Well-Represented in the Latest National Register of Big Trees

The General Sherman tree.

The General Sherman tree in Sequoia National Park. Photo by Tim Tolle via Creative Commons and Flickr.

How would you determine if a tree qualifies as a "national champion"? The National Register of Big Trees has the answers, and the 70th anniversary edition of that list just been released in a new online format. Sites in the National Park System are well-represented, including the home of "the earth's largest living thing."

The 2010 edition of American Forests’ National Register of Big Trees includes a total of 733 champion and co-champion trees from 637 native and naturalized tree species in the United States. “Our largest trees are impressive and special in their own right,” said American Forests’ Acting Executive Director Gerry Gray. “We hope this recognition brings protection and appreciation to these special trees, as it reminds us that large trees cannot thrive without healthy ecosystems.”

The National Register of Big Trees is updated bi-annually by American Forests, which describes itself as "the nation’s oldest citizens’ conservation group," and sponsored by The Davey Tree Expert Company. American Forests relies on participation from the public to find and nominate champion trees, which receive a point total based on their height, circumference, and one-quarter of their crown spread. State coordinators verify the nominations and conduct a variety of education and outreach programs to complement and extend the national program.

American Forests reports that Sequoia National Park’s “General Sherman” giant sequoia remains at the top of the 2010 list as both the Register’s highest scoring tree with 1,321 points and also as the earth's largest living thing. It's one of only three perennial champs since the first list of Big Trees was compiled in 1940. The other two uninterrupted leaders are the representatives of the Rocky Mountain juniper and western juniper.

Other NPS sites are well-represented on the list, including some that may be a surprise. Big Bend National Park in arid west Texas may not sound like a prime location for impressive trees, but the park claims the champion for several species, including the Gregg ash, drooping juniper and Meseta cottonwood.

Another irony is the location for the champion Alaska cedar, which isn't found in Alaska, but in Olympic National Park in Washington State. Now that the Register is available on-line, you can download your own copy and then do a search for all the trees in national parks, national monuments, or similar locations.

The 2010 Register also ushers in a new smallest Big Tree: a yellow anise-tree in Marion County, Florida, with 29 points; it's five feet taller, but slightly skinnier and with a crown spread one-third narrower than the previous smallest champion, the Geyer willow.

Among other notable changes: The famous Seven Sisters Oak of Louisiana—the only champion with a crown twice as wide as the tree is tall – reclaimed its champion title with a growth of 43 points.

Which state is home to the most national champion trees? Florida has regained that title with with 99, while Arizona fell to number two with 91 champions. Next in line are Texas (77), California (73), and Virginia (68). Maryland, with 23 champs, continues to show that you don’t have to be a big state to have a lot of big trees, and the discovery of a champion Virginia pine in Sussex County puts Delaware back in the National Register.

Trees are living things, so their status changes, and new champs are being discovered with each new list. While all but one of the 15 biggest species in the country have held their rankings since the last Register, this year saw the crowning of 175 new champions or co-champions, while 164 were dethroned.

A surprising number of species aren't represented at all in the Register. There are 221 species without national champions, as there are no specimens on the list in the states of North Dakota, Oklahoma, Wyoming, and Rhode Island. If that hurts your state pride, the keepers of the Register encourage you get out, starting looking for impressive trees, and nominate a champion when you spot a likely prospect.

According to Sheri Shannon, American Forests’ Big Tree Coordinator, "From professional arborists and foresters who hike miles of America’s forests, to the individual citizens who nominate trees in their backyards, the success of the National Register, now as ever, depends on you—the people who love these trees."

You'll find guidelines for measuring trees, a nomination form, answers to Frequently Asked Questions, and all the other details about the program on the American Forests website.

For the first time this year, the 2010 National Register of Big Trees is available online. You may view the entire 2010 National Register of Big Trees as a downloadable PDF or in a searchable database. The online database allows you to conduct an advanced search for trees by species, state, measurements, total points, and latin name. The 2010 edition also features a revised list of eligible species, ensuring consistency with today’s taxonomy and nomenclature for trees.

Determining the correct winner as a national champion tree sometimes involves a bit of sleuthing or a not-so-instant-replay on previous decisions by the experts, and it's not unusual for a listed tree to be dethroned when the Register is updated. In most cases, the switch occurs because a larger specimen has been located or the previous champ has died or been damaged, but two previous Fraser fir champions in Ohio were exposed as imposters; they were later determined to be silver firs. If you sometimes have difficulty identifying a tree, you can take some comfort in knowing that even the experts are occasionally stumped.

National parks and similar protected sites provide important habitat for both plants and animals, but those areas—and these individual trees—are only part of the picture when it comes to a healthy environment for our country.

Karl J. Warnke is the Chairman, President and CEO of the Davey Tree Expert Company, which provides important financial support for the National Register of Big Trees. He notes, "The fact that a tree is a champion isn’t the most important thing. It’s what they represent that matters. Caring for every tree and the world around them is the heart of the Big Tree message. Big Trees thrive when they are part of a healthy ecosystem, and keeping it healthy is a job for all of us as environmental stewards."



So which NPS unit has the most champion trees? Is it your beloved Congaree, as I would naively suspect? I know it has many state champions, but I thought it had at least half a dozen national champions, starting with Pinus taeda (loblolly).

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