January 9, 2018

Champion Trees

By Shawn Doonan for New Urban Forestry in Athens, Georgia

There seems to be a contest for everything in the US, which is a testament to our competitive core as Americans.  Some of the most recognizable competitions in our culture highlight tremendous speed, brawn and precision in an attempt to outscore opponents. By contrast, the National Big Tree Program is a search for the largest specimens of a given tree species in the woods or in an urban landscape. This is hardly an exhibition of strength and endurance for the hunter, but rather one of curiosity, love of nature, and a keen attention to detail. This competition is intended to promote awareness and enthusiasm for one of the most important living organisms in our ecosystem: trees.

American Forests, the nation's oldest conservation organization, has maintained a national register of champion trees since 1940. This list is comprised of 700 specimens, all of which are the largest known specimens of their species. Each worthy candidate is judged on the trunk circumference, height, and the width of its crown spread.

Each state in the US maintains a champion tree list of its own, and there are individual communities, like ours, which do as well. Georgia is home to 20 national champion trees, one of which has a home here in Athens.  That tree is the Georgia Oak which measures 77" in trunk circumference, 59' in height, and has a 65' crown spread. Sadly, there was a second national champion tree here until recently when the Flowering Dogwood at the Athens Regional Hospital died for unexplained reason.

Flowering dogwood formerly at Athens Regional Medical Center

Narrowing the focus to our state's register, Athens is home to 18 of Georgia's State Champion Trees. One of the more notable trees with this designation is the Deodar Cedar, which is located in front of Chase Street Elementary School. Unfortunately, this tree experienced a devastating lightning strike, which has led to the general decline of the tree. Consequently, this tree was recently removed.

The Deodar Cedar located at Chase Street Elementary before and after the lightning strike.

All of the trees on the on the national tree register have attained a point of maturity and in many cases are hundreds of years old. Mature trees, like elderly people, are less resilient than their younger counterparts to the trauma caused by climate change, severe weather events, and encroachment in the urban landscape. For this reason, they're vanishing from our urban landscape. Therefore it's more important than ever to start caring for the existing champion trees and replacing those that are threatened or have already passed to ensure that this program lives on for generations to come.

 Lightning protection that NUF installed in The Tree that Owns Itself near Downtown Athens.

Professionals and amateurs alike can nominate trees for the local, state and national tree registries. There are reportedly more than 200 eligible species without a designated champion. All you need are some tools, curiosity and a little know how. So go for a hike, and see if you can become a big tree hunter!