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In Search of Champions

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Published on: Dec. 2, 2002

Last revision: Nov. 12, 2010

Few things in nature command our interest, respect and awe as much as a big tree. As children, we climbed, hung swings and built tree houses in big trees. As adults, we find solitude and comfort under their leafy canopies. As a society, we derive benefits from trees that we can find nowhere else.

By the early part of the twentieth century, most of the forests in the eastern United States were cut for building lumber, railroad ties and fuel wood. Few groves of big trees remained east of the Great Plains. By 1940, involvement in another world war loomed over America. The need for wood to meet the demands of a growing nation and the war effort would be great.

Joseph Stearns, a researcher with the Southern Hardwood Producers in Memphis, Tenn., published an article in the September 1940 issue of American Forests called, "Let's Find and Save the Biggest Trees." In the article he said, "I believe that a few of our biggest specimens of each tree species should be singled out, marked, plotted on timber maps and preserved. All lumber company employees should be notified that such trees are not to be cut, damaged by felling adjacent trees or scarred by careless axemen."

Thus was born the idea for a big tree list. Today this list is called the National Register of Big Trees. The national program is administered by American Forests, a private forest conservation organization. All 50 states have big tree coordinators and participate in the program. In Missouri, we call it the Champion Tree Program.

The purpose of the Champion Tree Program is to recognize and record the largest known specimen of every tree species in the state. To be eligible for listing, a species must be native or naturalized. Native trees are those found growing wild in our forests. Naturalized trees are exotic (introduced) species that have become common and establish themselves as if they are native. Horticultural varieties, hybrids and exotic species are excluded from the list.

Champion trees are scored on a point system. A tree's total points are determined by the sum of its trunk circumference (in inches) at 4.5 feet above the ground, height (in feet) and one-fourth of the average crown spread (in feet). The formula gives more weight to trunk circumference and height than crown size. An open-grown tree will have a large crown, while a tree growing

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