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Mountain Home Magazine

Living Landmarks

One fine spring day several years ago, I was shooting some landscape photography at Bohlayer’s Orchards in Farmers Valley near Troy. I had walked to the top of the steep hill above the orchard to get some shots of the apple trees in their blossoming glory when I noticed a lone tree near a fenceline separating two hayfields. The tree’s massive trunk and tremendous limb span lured me in for a closer look.

The tree turned out to be a species known as white oak. I stood in awe as its broad rounded dome and giant limbs loomed over me. I couldn’t help but wonder how the tree was able to obtain such a great age, especially being in this open field. Oaks are noted for their extreme strength and resistance to strong storms that would otherwise destroy some trees, but factors such as insects, disease, location, lightning, and the ax could have easily spelled death to this lonesome giant.

Relating its sheer size to someone would be difficult without measurements, so with my arms outstretched, I bear-hugged the trunk, marked the spot, then moved around the tree one and a half more times to complete the circle. With that handmade measurement, I estimated the circumference at fifteen feet.

Starting at the drip line, and walking west to east, I stepped off an amazing thirty-one paces, which would equate to a ninety-three-foot limb span. Wow! The height? Well, it was about as tall as our silos.

Several days after my encounter with the oak, I contacted Robert Hansen, the county forester at the Penn State Cooperative Extension office in Towanda. I’d heard about a big tree program conducted by the Bradford County Forest Landowners Association, and asked Bob if we could get together sometime to get precise measurements needed to nominate the tree.

On a cold, crisp day in April, with permission obtained from the landowners, I led Bob to the mighty oak.

Big trees like this one are recorded by using a point system—a formula comprised of the circumference, height, and average crown spread. Bob’s first measurement of the oak was taken with a diameter tape—a tape measure calibrated in units of 3.14 (pi) inches. The measurement is taken at what is known as circumference at breast height (CBH) which is a point on the trunk 4-½ feet above the ground. It came to 161 inches or 51.3 inches in diameter.

Roger’s friend Dave Levan is dwarfed by the immense size of the mighty oak of Farmers Valley.

One point is given for each inch of circumference. Height is measured from the groundline to the highest point on the tree. In this case, Bob uses a clinometer—an instrument that measures slope based on trigonometry. Bob stands at a precise distance from the trunk, and with the $100 device held at eye level, determines the height at 58 feet. One point is given for each one foot of height.

Two measurements recorded in feet are taken of the crown spread or limb span: one at the widest and one at the narrowest points. Those measurements were 96.2 feet and 102.2 feet respectively, for an average of 99.2 feet. One-fourth of a point is given for each one foot of average crown spread. We now had the equation to calculate the total points:

(161) + (58) + (¼ x 99.2) = 244 points.

So how did 244 stand up against other white oaks already entered in the program? Well, at the time, the largest in the county had a score of 291, but the state champion—growing in Fayette County—measured up an incredible 378 points.

“State Champion?” you ask, “What does that mean?”

Well, over fifty years ago, the Pennsylvania Forestry Association—chartered in 1886—launched its Champion Tree Program to seek out and document the largest trees growing in the Keystone State. The call to search for such specimens was first made public in 1940 when a concerned Tennessee forester named Joseph Sterns announced his rally in a forestry publication, “Lets find and save the biggest trees,” he wrote.

Stern’s message involved locating and measuring the largest trees of each species in America, a program that American Forests—founded in 1875—has maintained as the National Registry of Big Trees. Since then, conservationists in all fifty states and the District of Columbia have accepted and promoted this worthwhile quest.

You can easily take part in the Pennsylvania Champion Tree Program. If you know where a giant tree—by your definition—has taken root, size it up using the point system formula, then check it against its own species in Tree Listings at If you’ve found a whopper, a nomination form at the same site enables you to submit your entry for champion status. Along with your entry, include a quality photo of the tree with someone or something next to it to illustrate a sense of perspective. Who knows, maybe your nomination will eventually dethrone another.

If you’ve suddenly got the urge to track down some of these living landmarks, and would possibly consider becoming a Big Tree Tender to help oversee the big trees in your county, contact Scott Wade, the Pennsylvania Big Tree Coordinator at [email protected]. Duties of the Big Tree Tender would simply involve updating and photographing the trees every three to five years.

For those who would like a handheld list of the state’s most noteworthy trees, order the most recent copy of Big Trees of Pennsylvania. It’s a beautiful, glossy, forty-four-page booklet with a listing of over 1,200 trees comprised of hundreds of species, with snapshots of some grand beauties. Plus, the current edition is a special 125th anniversary of the Pennsylvania Forestry Association—a celebration of the program and the individuals who have made it possible. Send $15 to: PA Big Trees, C/O Scott Wade, 5 Prince Eugene Ln., Media, PA 19063. Your purchase of the book is the sole fundraiser for the program.

The Pennsylvania Champion Tree Program is just one of the many resources the Pennsylvania Forestry Association uses to encourage citizen interest, involvement, and education in forest management and the key role these remarkable trees play in our lives.

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