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Stature beyond size: don't let its small size fool you; Maryland is the nation's matriarch of monumental trees.

IN 1955, when the National Register of Big Trees was 15 years old, guess which state had the most national champions? Nope, not Florida (now #1). Not California (now #2). Not Arizona (3), Texas (4), Virginia (5), or Michigan (6). It's not in the South where tree diversity is highest and most exclusive, and it's not in the Pacific Northwest where it rains almost daily.

Unless you really know Big Tree history, you'd have to guess because the answer is surprising. In 1955 it was tiny Maryland that topped the charts with 45 of the biggest trees in America.

True, Maryland did have a head start, having invented the Big Tree contest way back in 1925. When AMERICAN FORESTS started the National Register in 1940, it emulated Maryland's program and soon promoted 34 of Maryland's big trees to national primacy. Over the years, the number of national champs there dwindled as more and more people in the rest of the country joined in the search for big trees.

Even today, 64 years after the national search began, Maryland--which ranks 42nd among states in land area--is in 14th place in Big Treedom with 10 national champs. Even more surprising, if you level the playing field by looking at the density of champions in each state, Maryland comes in at number 3! Only Virginia, just barely, and Florida, with all its subtropical species, have more relative to their land area. The state that started it all has a national champion tree for every 978 square miles.

Before Europeans came to North America, Maryland, like most of the East, was almost entirely covered in forests, with vast regions of old-growth. Newcomer mentality and greed laid waste to these seemingly endless forests to make way for agriculture and settlements and to feed the logging boom of the 1800s. Few people looked past the profit of the next few years, or beyond their own horizons, unless it was to seek other forests to exploit. Fortunately, these attitudes began to change in the early 20th century, although it was too late for all but a tiny fraction of the old-growth. By then, only 20 percent of the state had any forest cover at all.

The turning point came in 1906 when Fred Besley, a former student of Gifford Pinchot, the "father of American forestry," became Maryland's first state forester. As a forest service of one, Besley spent the first seven years of his 36-year tenure roaming "every cowpath in Maryland" on a horse-drawn buggy to survey the state's forests.

He took a special interest in photographing, measuring, and maintaining a Notable Tree List of the biggest specimens he found. To compare the size of differently shaped trees, Besley developed a formula to combine the tree's girth, height, and crown spread, weighted for importance in that order, into one number. He noticed people across the state were also intrigued by big trees, so he held the first Big Tree Contest in 1925 and received 450 nominations.

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Jump ahead to 1940 when forester Joseph Stearns famously challenged "all who come in contact with trees ... to fight for the preservation of our biggest tree specimens." In response, AMERICAN FORESTS began the National Register of Big Trees using Besley's formula, and nominations came pouring in from across the country. After Connecticut's chestnut oak (Quercus prinus), the second tree crowned was the white oak (Quercus alba) of Wye Mills, Maryland, nominated, of course, by Fred Besley. When the first full Register was published in 1945, 42 states claimed at least one of the list's 228 champions. Maryland had the most with 37-34 nominated by Besley.

Maryland held onto the number one spot until 1966, reaching a high of 45 national champs in 1955. Since then, the odds have caught up with the little state, but it has always boasted a much greater number than size alone would indicate. Even at a low of five champs in 1944, it ranked 28th, 14 places higher than its rank by land area.

Maryland has maintained its prominence largely through an exceptional state big tree program. Maureen Brooks, AMERICAN FORESTS' big tree coordinator for the Old Line State, updates her list on a web site twice each year. Brooks sends a certificate and a list of all nominations for that species to the owner of each nominated tree, regardless of whether it becomes the champ. Each contender for a big tree title is checked and measured by a state forester.

In the near future, Brooks hopes to have all of Maryland's big trees in a digital geographic data set that, when layered over land-use plans, will improve a champ's chances of surviving the next shopping mall or road improvement.

Recently I had the privilege of following in Fred Besley's buggy tracks to visit a few of the 275 Maryland state champs that have achieved national recognition.

The biggest national champion tree in Maryland is a 429-point American beech (Fagus grandifolia) that grows on a farm in Anne Arundel County. If the word "book" was derived from "bece," an Old English form of beech, then this tree is certainly a book writ large. More than 100 people have staked their claim, expressed their love, or otherwise symbolized their story on its smooth silvery-gray bark. There are several hand outlines, a couple of stick figures, and a solitary, enigmatic asterisk. No telling how many other initials, names, and hearts lie hidden underneath. Following the handholds of so many kids that grew up nearby, I hoisted myself up among its forest of 17 major limbs, each 1-3 feet in diameter, which join into a massive trunk 7 1/2 feet thick.

I scooted out along a horizontal limb for 32 feet and looked back to get a better read on the champ's size. The long stout limbs shoot out 50 to 100 feet in all directions like an exploding firework. The canopy was so dense that it took 10 minutes of steady rain before I felt the first drop.

Today's champion honeylocust (Gleditsia triacanthos) towers 100 feet over the yard of the pre-revolutionary home of Gary and Lin Schmidt in Frederick County. It is 26 feet taller and over a foot thicker than the national champion nominated by Fred Besley in the first Register. An ice storm bested the strength of one of its four major limbs but left its height and nearly 20-foot girth intact, allowing it to fend off a recent challenge from a former co-champion in Virginia.

Field guide authors describe the common chokecherry (Prunus virginiana var. virginiana) as a shrub or small tree that grows to a maximum height of about 30 feet and a diameter of 8 inches. Tell that to Frank and Wendy Rurka, of Owings Mills, who proudly own a specimen 74 feet tall and over 4 feet in diameter!

On the banks of the lower Patuxent River in Calvert County, Jefferson Patterson Park has yielded artifacts spanning 9,000 years of human history. The last 200 years are also recorded in the rings of the stately champion sand hickory (Carya pallida) growing on the Patterson estate, near the site of a battle from the War of 1812.

The other Maryland heavyweights with national standing are a 349-point black mulberry (Morus nigra) in Westminster that bests Besley's old nomination by more than 100 points, and a newly crowned chestnut oak with a girth of nearly 23 feet. In the middleweight division is a 158-point southern crab apple (Malus angustifolia) in Chestertown. Upon seeing it for the first time, new owner Maureen MacLaughlin hugged it and exclaimed, "This will be my [special] tree!"

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The flyweights include a 62-point hazelnut (Corylus americana) in Prince Frederick, a 52-point poison-sumac (Toxicodendron vernix) in Arnold, and a 30-point, 2 1/2 inch-diameter cochamp shrub althea hibiscus (Hibiscua syriacus).

A champion is the largest currently known individual of its kind, and not necessarily the biggest one ever recorded. In its state list, Maryland also includes a "Hall of Champions," the former greats, since fallen or diminished, which once were larger than the current state champ. Seven of these peerless giants (gray birch, black tupelo; tamarack; bigleaf magnolia; and turkey, willow, and white oak) would have soundly beaten the current national champions as well, by margins of 27 to more than 100 points.

The most famous former Maryland champion is, of course, the Wye Oak, which finally surrendered to wind and gravity in 2002. This mightiest of all white oaks was the last of Fred Besley's national champions to be dethroned. Not only was it the biggest white oak, it was the biggest tree of any kind ever measured in Maryland. It was also the first tree to ever be purchased by a government to ensure its preservation.

Ten years ago, when I first visited the Wye Oak, I was humbled by its greatness. Even when I paid my respects to the remaining stump in Wye Mills last summer, I was struck by the size of the sky now left vacant. It was as if someone had moved a mountain. With it went a little piece of everyone's heart who knew it in life.

The search for a new national champion turned up five nominations in Maryland alone, resulting in three state co-champions. That kind of enthusiasm will ensure that, no matter where you go in the little state that started it all, you'll always be close to a champion tree.

For more on Maryland's big tree champs, write www.dnr.state.md.us/forests/trees/bigtree.html, or write Maureen Brooks, Maryland Forest Service, 9405 Old Harford Rd., Baltimore, MD 21234.

Photojournalist Whit Bronaugh lives in Eugene, Oregon.
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Title Annotation:Maryland Champions
Author:Bronaugh, Whit
Publication:American Forests
Geographic Code:1U5MD
Date:Mar 22, 2004
Words:1619
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