Nature’s notebook

On the hunt for champion trees

I recently had the opportunity to go out with a friend and some big tree hunters. Todd Pusser, marine biologist and wildlife photographer, introduced me to Byron Carmean, a retired biology and horticulture teacher, and Gary Williamson, a retired park ranger – big tree hunters extraordinaire. They’ve discovered more than 40 national champion trees and have nominated more trees to the American Forests Champion Trees national register than any other big tree hunters in the program’s history. American Forests maintains the national register of Champion Trees and works to protect the forests where the champions live. John Bunch also joined us.

It was Carmean and Williamson who found a bald cypress in Virginia that was more than 1,000 years old and at the time was the biggest tree in that state. The find was in the middle of 37 acres of virgin forest surrounded by logging operations, and they helped preserve the tract, now known as Cypress Bridge Swamp Natural Area Preserve.

The group measured a new national champion longleaf pine tree in Black Ankle in Montgomery County just before I met up with them. Andy Walker, botanist with the U.S. Forest Service in the Uwharrie National Forest, originally brought that tree to their attention. It’s on private land and the owners have had the property for a number of years.

When I met up with the group, we went to check a chestnut oak in Randolph County on property adjoining the Birkhead Wilderness Area that the landowner graciously let us explore. That tree, while large, was a couple of feet shy of being a state champion.

We then headed to the Pee Dee National Wildlife Refuge in Anson County to check out a loblolly pine tree that J.D. Bricken, the refuge manager, had shown me a few years ago. It is a massive tree, but was just a few points shy of the state champion. They found a few other big trees, a nice willow oak and a cherrybark oak and an overcup oak, but none was large enough to rival the current champions.

They were headed to Raven Rock State Park the next day in search of other big trees. I look forward to hearing what they found.

To determine whether a tree is a champion, you have to measure it. And the methods used must be a standardized. You start by measuring the tree’s circumference at 4 ½ feet (“breast height”) above the ground. There are ways to take into account such things as whether the tree is on a slope, or if it forks just above or below the breast height.

You then measure total height. Total height to the nearest foot is measured with a clinometer. For leaning or crooked trees, height measurements are taken at right angles to the direction of lean. Then you measure crown spread. Average crown spread is measured to the nearest foot with a tape measure. Two measurements are taken in perpendicular directions (accounting for the widest and narrowest diameter of the crown) and averaged. A clinometer with a degree scale can be used to ensure measurements are taken directly under the outer perimeter of the crown. See more about measuring trees here.

An oak tree of most any species needs to be at least 20 feet in circumference to even be considered as a possible champion. A large pine needs to be at least 10 feet in circumference. A few trees the group was keeping their eye out for were poison sumac, bladdernut, hornbeam, and hophornbeam.

If you know of other really large trees, we’d love to hear about them. Contact me at or 704-647-0302.