Documenting and preserving Virginia’s largest, most revered trees

This enormous national champion tulip poplar is located in Bedford County, Va. and stands roughly the height of a 14-story building with a trunk circumference of over 30 feet. (Courtesy of Eric Wiseman and the Virginia Big Tree Program)

Virginia is home to nearly 80 national champion big trees, consistently placing the commonwealth in the top five states with the most documented champion trees, or trees that have grown to be the largest specimens of their particular species. 

The Virginia Big Tree Program, coordinated by the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation at Virginia Tech, maintains a register of the largest specimens of over 300 native, non-native and naturalized tree species in Virginia. 

The trees are ranked based on a scoring system that takes into account their trunk circumference, overall height and average crown spread. Anyone can measure, or hunt, big trees and submit their findings for nomination by the Virginia Big Tree Program. 

Trees that are national contenders can be nominated by the National Champion Tree Program, coordinated by the University of Tennessee Knoxville’s School of Natural Resources.

“A lot of people oftentimes think that in order to find a giant champion tree that you’d have to be out in the wilderness somewhere, but that’s not the case,” said Eric Wiseman, associate professor of urban forestry at Virginia Tech and program coordinator for the Virginia Big Tree Program. 

“Really you just need a place where the growing conditions are suitable and the tree’s left alone for long enough that it can grow to extraordinary size,” Wiseman said. 

The high number of national champion trees found in Virginia is due in part to its extensive forest lands. “About two-thirds of our state has forest cover,” said Wiseman. That includes an abundance of urban forests.

Every single tree in an urban area, whether found in a park, on a street or in someone’s yard, makes up the urban forest, said Molly O’Liddy, the Virginia Department of Forestry’s urban and community forestry partnership coordinator. 

“A very healthy representation of our champion trees are in urban areas,” said Wiseman, and having large trees in cities is “really important for the environmental quality.”

Not only champion trees but every big, mature tree provides “so many benefits that young trees take decades to achieve,” O’Liddy said. 

Cooling urban areas 

One of the biggest benefits of large trees is cooling our urban centers, said Ann Jurczyk, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Virginia urban restoration manager. 

Large trees generally have extensive canopies that provide shade over urban streets, sidewalks and parking lots that would otherwise be much hotter, posing significant health risks during summer months through what is known as the urban heat island effect

A study by Jeremy Hoffman, director of Climate Justice and Impact at Groundwork USA, found that Richmond’s neighborhoods most vulnerable to high temperatures overlap with historical maps of redlining, a discriminatory practice that took place in the wake of the Great Depression that denied home financing and housing services to communities based on their race or ethnicity.

The data suggest that communities that were redlined in the 1930s, including majority-Black and Hispanic neighborhoods, have fewer trees and more pavement, resulting in temperatures that can be several degrees hotter during the summer. 

Extreme heat is known to be the number one weather related killer in the United States. 

The cooling effect of trees not only protects communities from extreme temperatures but also encourages people to get outside and exercise in their neighborhoods more than they would with no shade and “blazing hot” temperatures, said Jurczyk.

Cleaning air and water

Runoff and stormwater management is “really a concern for a lot of Virginia communities,” especially those located within the Chesapeake Bay watershed, said O’Liddy.

The extensive canopies and root systems of big trees means “they play a really important role in our water cycle, so having clean water but also provision of abundant water is a really important role of forests in general but large trees specifically,” said Wiseman. 

“From a water quality perspective, these trees do a great job of capturing rainfall and then slowly letting it evaporate from their leaves or needles,” said Jurczyk. This reduces the amount of stormwater runoff entering the Chesapeake Bay and the amount of harmful sediment and pollutants it carries with it. 

Trees also capture pollution in the air, helping to “clear the air of ozone, carbon dioxide and other particulates,” Jurczyk said. 

As trees grow larger, they accumulate significant amounts of carbon storage. “That is a really important ecosystem service of forests for humanity because it pulls carbon out of the atmosphere,” said Wiseman. “And we know that carbon dioxide is a contributor to global warming and climate change.”

The Biden administration set a goal of achieving a carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035 and a net zero emissions economy by no later than 2050, and trees are expected to play a crucial role.

On top of their carbon storage benefits, big trees can also lower energy usage in homes and buildings by providing shade during the summer months and protection from cold winter winds during the winter. 

“We can absolutely point to trees having the potential to greatly reduce utility bills,” said Jurczyk, which is “one of the selling points” for homeowners and developers who are deciding whether or not to keep trees on their properties.

“I’m never quite sure which of the benefits gets the most traction with the public,” but the list goes on and on, said Jurczyk. 

Providing habitat for wildlife

“In natural ecosystems, another important role of large trees is wildlife habitat,” said Wiseman. “As they grow very large and attain great height, we can see what’s known as niche stratification, or different microhabitats in the vertical structure of the forest.”

The vertical structure of mature forests contains what is called an understory, midstory and overstory. “Species of all sorts of wildlife occupy those various specialized niches, and very large trees help with that,” said Wiseman. 

As trees grow older, they can develop defects such as cavities and large internal openings, which “become really important habitats for roosting, hibernating or nesting for an assortment of wildlife.”

I wish everybody had the same love and certain knowledge about how all of these things are connected,” said Jurczyk, who referred to trees as “free infrastructure.” 

“Hopefully by building the awareness for how special a single individual tree can be in terms of the benefits it provides to the environment,” Jurczyk said, more people will look at that tree in their backyard and go, ‘you know, maybe I’ll keep you.’”

Cultural and historical values

“For a large specimen tree, there’s kind of an element of intrinsic appreciation and value,” said Wiseman. “But also, oftentimes these trees have a historical connection with a place, a community or an event.”

Virginia’s oak species are particularly revered due to their tremendous value in timber and wood products, their ecological benefits and their cultural and historical significance, said Wiseman. 

Oaks are among Virginia’s longest lived tree species, and they can be upwards of 300 to 500 years old. 

A lot of these trees were around right at the birth of our country, let alone our state, so just having something that you walk by everyday that has seen so much is pretty magical,” said O’Liddy.

One such tree, the Emancipation Oak on the campus of Hampton University, is where members of the Hampton community including formerly enslaved people and freedmen gathered in January 1863 to listen to one of the first official public readings of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in the South. Pioneering African American educator Mary Smith Kelsey Peake taught Black men, women and children to read and write beneath the oak’s sprawling branches during the Civil War. 

Nearby, an even older tree in Fort Monroe called the Algernourne Oak is estimated to be approximately 500 years old. It has witnessed the days of Indigenous life before colonists arrived as well as numerous important moments in American history, including the landing of the first ship to carry enslaved Africans to the English colonies in North America in present day Hampton. 

“The amazing thing about both of those trees is that they are publicly accessible,” said O’Liddy. “For folks to actually stand next to a specimen that is hundreds of years old and to think about the history, especially in that area, of what that tree has witnessed is pretty powerful.”

Another especially revered tree, the national champion osage-orange tree, is located beside the site of Patrick Henry’s former home in Charlotte County, Virginia. Osage-orange trees are “not super common on the landscape, so seeing a very large mature one is something that is really special, and it’s pretty awesome that the national champion is on the property of someone so historically significant,” said O’Liddy.

Big does not always mean old

Perhaps surprisingly to some, “Size is never ever a good predictor of age,” said Carolyn Copenheaver, professor in the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation at Virginia Tech who studies forest ecology and dendrochronology, or the study of annual growth rings in trees.

Recently, Copenheaver was coring trees to study their age in a small forest on Virginia Tech’s campus. A pignut hickory that Copenheaver assumed was a sapling due to its small four inch diameter turned out to be 164 years old. 

“To find out that something that small is 164 years old, to me that’s what makes a tree charismatic, when it surprises you,” said Copenheaver. “If you’re in a forest that’s been forested for a long, long time, those small trees in an understory can be incredibly old.”

Likewise, if you see a big tree in an open field, “people will assume it’s been there forever, and it usually hasn’t,” said Copenheaver. Its growth rate is just much faster because it isn’t competing with other trees around it. 

When talking about trees, “old” is a completely relative term. In an ecosystem where you have frequent fire, an old tree may be just 50 years old, said Copenheaver.

 “Whereas if we’re talking about a tree here in the mountains of Virginia, you better be at least 150 to 200 years old before you’re really considered old.”

The oldest trees in Virginia that Copenheaver has cored are usually on inaccessible sites, or places that are “pretty uncomfortable for humans to get to,” said Copenheaver, who has rock climbing friends who repel down steep terrain to find trees that are “incredibly old” growing off the sides of cliffs.

“If you want to be really, really old,” said Copenheaver, you have to have survived not only the clearing of land by colonists but also Indigenous tribes, who also cut down trees for agriculture and timber.  

The oldest trees Copenheaver tends to regularly see are white oaks due in part to their ability to compartmentalize decay, allowing the rest of the tree to keep growing without being impacted by that injury.

Virginia’s longest lived species of tree is the bald cypress, which has been documented to live well over 1,000 years old. 

Threats to big trees 

Threats to big trees are varied, and they are more or less significant depending on where you are, said Wiseman.

Big trees in urban and urbanizing areas face threats associated with land development. 

When land parcels are subdivided and lots made smaller, “it is exceedingly difficult to retain large trees” due to the simple fact that there is not enough space to install a building foundation and underground utilities while still retaining sufficient room for the root structure of big trees, Wiseman said. 

Virginia’s champion trees that are found in remote rural areas are, on the other hand, “more or less safe guarded from direct assaults from human beings,” said Wiseman. But they are still susceptible to pests, disease, invasive plants, extreme weather events and climate change.  

The American elm was “probably the most widely planted tree in American cities” at one time during the 19th and 20th centuries, said Wiseman, “but we lost nearly all of those trees when Dutch elm disease was accidentally brought into the US in the 1930s.”

“Having a survivor elm, as you might call it, and it being the national champion is special for us,” Wiseman said. 

The predicted consequences of climate change, “especially related to escalating temperatures and changes in rainfall,” are also going to impact the composition and regeneration of certain vegetation communities, Wiseman said. 

“Climate change is certainly something that raises concern at the ecosystem level for a lot of our forests,” said Wiseman. 

To what extent that’s going to imperil individual specimens of living trees, said Wiseman, “it’s difficult to speculate about that.” 

Some of Virginia’s high elevation species, particularly the firs and spruces that are endemic to the highlands of Virginia, “are imperiled by climate change because there’s only so high they can go up the mountain ridge to stay within a suitable climate range,” Wiseman said.

Whether it’s sooner or later, said Wiseman, “the time may come when we no longer have the size of native spruces and firs that historically occupied our landscapes.”

Changes in the amount of overall tree canopy are being tracked throughout the entire Chesapeake Bay watershed by the Chesapeake Bay Program land use and land cover data project.

Updated data is expected to be released this year from high resolution satellite imagery that will show how land cover and land use has changed between 2018 through 2022. 

Jurczyk said experts anticipate that the tree canopy loss between 2018 to 2022 is exponentially more than it was during the 2013 to 2018 timeframe of the first data analysis. 

“But here’s what we don’t know: is that being lost to utility scale solar? Is it being lost to right of way for utilities? Is it being lost to road construction for the widening of I-64, 81, and 95?” said Jurczyk. 

Land use and land cover change data will help to “inform policy in the future so that we can make wiser decisions about how we protect canopy and how we plant it,” Jurczyk said.  

Legislation to protect individual trees 

The Virginia Big Tree Program is celebratory not regulatory, meaning that “having a tree registered does not in and of itself impart any special protection for the tree,” said Wiseman.

On one hand, the lack of protection is viewed as a good thing by some landowners. 

“Understandably, people who own a champion tree have a little bit of hesitancy about nominating the tree and having this recognition because they feel like it may encumber their private property rights or require them to protect the tree in a way that might be burdensome for them,” said Wiseman. 

On the other hand, with a few exceptions, homeowners can legally decide to cut down any tree on their property, including those specimens that have enormous environmental, cultural and historical significance.

Trees that are protected by law are those found within designated preservation areas. That includes any tree within 100 feet of a stream or river in localities within the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act Area, which encompasses over 80 localities in eastern Virginia’s tidewater region. 

Certain trees are also legally protected in some localities that have adopted individual specimen or heritage tree ordinances. 

The Virginia General Assembly passed enabling legislation that allows localities to adopt a tree conservation ordinance to regulate the preservation and removal of heritage, specimen, memorial and street trees. 

Only a handful of localities have chosen to adopt the ordinance; some of them can be found on Virginia Tech’s tree ordinance database

Localities that choose to adopt the ordinance can decide how they would like to enforce or incentivise landowners to preserve trees that are designated for protection. The code allows for civil penalties of up to $2,500 for each violation. 

In many cases, landowners must voluntarily nominate their trees for designation before any civil penalties for cutting down a tree would apply. 

In other cases, such as in the City of Williamsburg, civil penalties have been removed from the ordinance language altogether. Instead of being regulatory or punitive, Williamsburg’s heritage tree program is intended to “heighten public consciousness by informing and educating the public of the benefits that not only Heritage Trees, but trees in general, provide to the community.”

Williamsburg incentivises landowners to nominate trees to its heritage tree program by providing a plaque for the tree, posting a photo of the tree on the city website and offering to consult with landowners about proper pruning techniques and alternatives to removing or damaging a designated tree. 

“These ordinances go hand in hand with public education about the benefits of trees,” said Kenny Fletcher, Chesapeake Bay Foundation director of communications and media relations.

“Not every locality is going to adopt an ordinance, which means there are plenty of people in Virginia who it’s up to them whether or not they’re going to preserve trees.”

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