Virginia moved up to third place on the 2017 American Forests Champion Trees national register, with 74 national champion trees, after earning fifth place in 2016.

Virginia gained 21 new champion and co-champion trees this year, more than any other state, including a trilobum red maple in Isle of Wight County, a swamp chestnut oak in Virginia Beach, and a Virginia pine in Caroline County.

Among Virginia’s other champions are a weeping willow in Tazewell County, a silverbell in Goochland County, and a rose of Sharon in Cumberland County.

Several trees were also dethroned this year when larger champions were crowned, including a loblolly pine, a butternut, and an eastern baccharis.

Much of this change can be credited to the efforts of Eric Wiseman, associate professor of urban forestry and arboriculture in the College of Natural Resources and Environment and coordinator of the Virginia Big Tree Program, who combed through records and nominated any tree he thought might be a contender.

“We had a very significant change this year in our numbers. In several cases, we had trees on our Virginia register that we hadn’t realized were bigger than the current national champ,” he said.

Volunteers nationwide, referred to as big tree hunters, search for and nominate trees for the Champion Trees national register, which is updated each year. The register lists the largest trees in the country for more than 660 species.

In order to be eligible for inclusion on the register, trees must be at least 9.5 inches in circumference and at least 13 feet in height. In addition, only certain species of native and naturalized trees are considered eligible.

A tree’s size is based on a formula that includes trunk diameter (measured 4.5 feet above the ground), height, and the average spread of the crown, or upper branches. From these three measurements, a point value is assigned to each tree. The trees of each species with the most points are named champions.

The Virginia Big Tree Program, which began in 1970 and is based in Virginia Tech’s Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation, maintains a register of the commonwealth’s largest specimens of over 300 native and nonnative tree species and works to educate the public about the value of trees and forests.

For Wiseman, education and outreach are the real mission of the Virginia Big Tree Program.

“Even if you’re not that interested in trees, it’s hard to find someone who can’t appreciate a large champion tree,” Wiseman said. “If people can at least identify with them, then you’ve got a foot in the door to have a conversation about the importance of forest conservation more broadly.”

In September, the Virginia Big Tree Program was honored by Scenic Virginia, a conservation organization dedicated to the preservation and enhancement of Virginia’s scenic beauty, with the Paul F. Revell Scenic Trees Award. Revell, one of the founders of and a driving force in developing and expanding the Virginia Department of Forestry’s Urban and Community Forestry Program, passed away in 2016.

“It was really special to me because I knew Paul well,” Wiseman said. “He was so passionate about making sure that trees and people can co-exist. He worked diligently to uplift just about any program associated with trees, and he was always quick to step up and speak for the Big Tree Program. He seemed to enjoy and appreciate the big trees, but he also saw the value of the program for the general citizenry.”

Wiseman hopes that the program can continue to inspire landowners and citizens to preserve big trees in their communities. Recently, the program has inspired several communities to take stock of their own big trees and even consider them in policymaking decisions.

“The Roanoke Valley Big Tree Stewards and the cities of Lynchburg, Arlington, and Alexandria have all begun organizing their own big tree lists. Folks recognize that they might not have many trees that are the biggest in the state, but they think it’s important to figure out the biggest trees in their community and educate their citizens about them,” he said.

“Having a tree on the register has some sway with people. If a town council or a board of supervisors discovers that a big tree might be jeopardized by a land-use decision, I think they do pay attention to that. I like the idea of the program having influence on local decisions about land use and conservation,” Wiseman concluded.

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