A call for your Big Tree Champions

Hone tree identification skills and learn more about the world of trees in Chittenden County

When I was growing up down in Windham County, Bill Guenther, the county forester, used to lead a Big Tree Tour every year. As a kid I hadn’t yet fallen into my current tree-crazy state, and I never attended one of Bill’s tours. One year, when I was a forestry student at the University of Vermont and had begun to catch forestry-fever, I planned on attending the tour but ended up missing it again. Undeterred, my mother took it upon herself to contact Bill about arranging a personal tour. If any of you know Bill, you know that he will do anything kind for any good reason, and so he offered up a Saturday to take one forestry student and some of his tree-nerd friends on a walk. I still think of that day, and it was riding around with Bill from tree to tree, talking forestry, that was what first made me want to be a county forester.

The best thing about drawing attention to our Big Trees is that they are a gateway to so many other good things. Yes, these massive specimens are individually impressive and worthy of our attention. However, they are also important for how they inspire wonder in people and connect them to trees in general. A love and respect for trees leads to a love of forests and the natural world, which I think feeds into thoughtful, sustainable forest management.

Following in Bill’s sizable footsteps, I’d like to have a Big Tree Tour in Chittenden County in the coming years. The problem is, the only Big Trees I know are the ones I stumble upon in the woods or in the yards and back pastures of the landowners I visit. I’d like to issue a call to all of you to send me your Big Tree Champions.

But wait! If I actually went and looked at every tree that folks thought was pretty big, I would have time for little else. Here’s what we’ll do:

Go to the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation (FPR)’s Big Tree Register. You can search for our current champions by species or town.

Also on FPR’s Big Tree page, you’ll see how we determine our champs. The formula is a tree’s circumference (in inches) + the tree’s height (in feet) + ¼ of the tree’s average canopy spread (in feet). The result of this calculation is the tree’s point total. The tree of each species with the most points is our champion of that species.

While a tree’s height is difficult to accurately determine at home, it is easy to tell if your Big Tree is close to being a champ by using the other two metrics of the formula. You can measure the circumference of a tree by using any tape measure. Wrap this around the trunk of the tree at breast height (4.5 feet above the ground) to get your circumference. This is where most of the points for Big Tree Champions come from. You can determine the average canopy spread of the tree by walking out to the dripline of the tree (the farthest extent of its branches), and having a friend do the same, directly opposite you on the other side of the tree. Measure the distance between you. Do this twice, once where the canopy is at its widest, and once when it is at its narrowest, and create an average of the two figures.

Once you have your circumference and average canopy spread, divide the canopy spread by four and you have your points total, minus height. Look up the champion of that species of tree you are measuring and see how tall your tree would have to be to beat it. If it seems like you might be in the neighborhood of the champ, give me a call!

If you have trouble identifying the tree, put out a call to friends and neighbors to see if anyone knows what it is. There are also a number of tree ID apps and online resources to consult. This could be a good opportunity for you to hone your tree identification skills, and learn more about the world of trees around you.

Let me know what you find! Even if you don’t haul in a champ, you might still get to look at, and learn about, some amazing trees. (Here is the Charlotte Tree Tribe’s list of Charlotte’s champion trees.)

Ethan Tapper is the Chittenden County forester. He can be reached via email, by phone at (802) 585-9099, or at his office at 111 West Street, Essex Junction, 05452.