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VIP of champion trees: a look at the most successful big tree hunter in the National Register.

Some people just seem born to fill a particular niche. John F Kennedy was a born leader of people. Peyton Manning was destined to play quarterback. For the chore and challenge of seeking out new big trees, Robert Van Pelt is The Man. Van Pelt has the physical ability to bushwhack into the deepest forests, the obsessive drive required to ferret out new champions, the mathematical mind to calculate their dimensions, and the artistic sensibilities to reproduce the charismatic giants.


Some indication of his exceptional curiosity was apparent at age eight, when a Boy Scout leader showed Robert's troop how to identify various tree species during winter. Young Robert already knew how to tell a tree by its leaves, but he was skeptical of the bark interpretations of the man, who was also a forester. As the group shuffled onward, Robert stayed behind and dug through the snow to find buried leaves that he knew would tell the truth. They matched the instructor's identifications exactly, and Robert's emerging interest in trees was instantly sparked.


Later, while studying physics at the University of Wisconsin, Robert discovered Bruce Alison's Wisconsin Champion Trees and began tracking down each one with attentive zeal. He found some new champions, and dethroned others. His niche was taking shape.

As soon as his college obligations were met, Van Pelt moved to the West Coast and landed a job as a cook in the Mecca of big trees--Sequoia National Park. The following season he worked at Lake Crescent Lodge on Washington's Olympic Peninsula, where the world's biggest grand fir supposedly lurked. Van Pelt promptly located the giant tree, only to find it lying supine amidst giant ferns, moss-covered, and quite dead.

Other seekers might have been discouraged by the monarch's undocumented demise, but Van Pelt saw a void to be filled. He helped establish a Washington State Big Tree Program, and soon became the director. He recalls the appointment with a humility that is almost laughable today. "I felt kind of weird about taking the post, because usually someone like a professional forester was in charge of such groups. 1 didn't really have any credentials." He soon got them.

Over the next several years, Van Pelt earned his masters in ecology by studying succession in floodplain forests, then his PhD in old-growth structure from the University of Washington. Today Robert is a research affiliate there, studying epiphyte structure in old-growth canopy. His enthusiasm for forest work is as obvious as ever. "We found a single Sitka spruce with one metric ton of biomass. And that's oven-dry weight!" he explains.


Many of Van Pelt's papers are produced with renowned big-tree climber and scientist Steve Sillet, the primary character in the book The Wild Trees. With Sillet, Van Pelt has traveled to Australia and Tasmania to study eucalyptus canopies. Several of Robert's friends were engaged in research there during a recent wildfire outbreak. "Thankfully, they made it out," he says, "but the world's tallest hardwood forest was burned dead."

One might assume that the loss would weigh hard on the big-tree guru, but his keen sense of life's transience leaves room for optimism. "Those trees grow fast," he reminds us. "There's a forest over there that was logged in 1939, and it already has a tree that's 276 feet tall."

Van Pelt's big-tree obsession spans the wide world, but his true passion remains rooted in the giant conifers of the American West Coast. He has visited more big trees there than anyone else on earth, and the fruits of his explorations are chronicled in Forest Giants of the Pacific Northwest. In the book Robert profiles 117 individual trees from the 20 biggest conifer species. Each is named to reflect its individual character: Terex Titan, Calaveras Colossus, Smoky Jack. Every tree in the book is meticulously hand drawn by Van Pelt, and the drawings offer accurate perspectives that are often unattainable from obfuscated forest views.

Van Pelt's dedication to big trees is evident in the book, and his pureness of purpose has inspired legions to become big-tree enthusiasts. Not that he has to worry about anybody usurping his crown. Van Pelt's 70-plus champion tree nominations is a total that remains unrivaled.

But like most great talents, Van Pelt takes his own abilities for granted. His friends call his relentless big-tree searching "Van Pelting." and it never stops. While traveling to a foresters" conference recently, he spotted a remarkably intact floodplain at the edge of a small town. With a quick scan, he located a 496-point California sycamore--the biggest ever recorded.

When asked about his most exciting big-tree discovery, Robert doesn't tell of deep wilderness finds but rather points to specimens growing just off the Tioga Pass Road in Yosemite National Park, a place thousands pass every year. He spotted both the world-record Jeffrey pine and a champion red fir there. "I was surprised Stephen Arno hadn't found them," he says of the noted forester and author who lived in Yosemite.

AMERICAN FOREST'S National Big Tree Program began in 1940 and has blossomed through involvement of such tree enthusiasts as Elers Koch. Oliver Matthews, and Robert Zahnner. Acknowledging these luminaries of big-tree culture. Van Pelt says. "In a lot of cases, it's one person that makes the difference." He ought to know, because Robert Van Pelt has made the biggest difference of all.

Tyler Williams is an acclaimed writer from Arizona.


AMERICAN FORESTS has made a number of changes to the qualifications for entry into the National Register of Big Trees. Under the new regs, a total of 857 tree species are now eligible for championship, 55 more species than since it was last published. In addition, 23 species have been deleted from the list, nine of which had current champions. To see the details of all the changes that have been made, visit

A total of 189 tree species still have no champion at all. As spring continues, think about getting out there and finding a champ of your own!
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Title Annotation:EARTHKEEPERS; Robert Van Pelt
Author:Williams, Tyler
Publication:American Forests
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2009
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