This is a story about Wisconsin’s Champion Trees Program, its rich history and encouraging revival. But first, some wisdom from a great ecologist and conservationist.
When Aldo Leopold was fashioning his land ethic, in which he posited that people are members of a land community and have a duty to care for it, trees certainly entered into his thoughts.
After all, trees are perhaps our closest neighbors in the land community. Huge swaths of Wisconsin are wholly or partly forested. The rest of the state is far from treeless. They line farm fields, dress up hillsides, thrive along rivers, and persevere in inhospitable environments like sand plains. Our urban communities are graced by trees that help cool sultry summer days and shield us from biting winter winds.
Many of us have distinct memories about our woody neighbors. Maybe it’s the first tree climbed as a child, or a tree planted when a child was born or in memory of a loved one who has passed. Many find places of peace among trees, where we go to seek solitude. Trees provide food and shelter. They have vast economic value, from the frames of our homes to beautiful works of art. We know that trees play a huge role in mitigating climate change, even as they literally freshen the air we breathe. Forest ecologists today ponder the ability of trees to communicate and support one another, whether defending from drought, disease, or insect invaders or cooperating as members of a forest community.
Our closest neighbors, indeed.
After the Leopold family bought a worn-out farm and surrounding land along the Wisconsin River in Sauk County in the mid-1930s, they set about planting trees and undertaking prairie restoration. Some of the trees they spaded into the ground stand to this day, living champions of the land ethic, which takes us to the subject of Wisconsin’s champion trees.
It’s a feel-good story of trees and people who champion them, a story that is alive and well today, more than three-quarters of a century since it began. At virtually the same time Leopold was planting trees, one of his peers, beloved Wisconsin conservationist Walter Scott, undertook an effort to compile a record of Wisconsin’s largest trees.
Scott began his work in 1941. It was the birth of the Wisconsin Champion Trees Program, which has survived through thick and thin. Recently and after a lull, the Department of Natural Resources breathed new life into the program, adding some nifty bells and whistles that employ digital mapping and other tools that are helping to slowly but surely update and add to the list of champions while better pinpointing where they can be found. The department relies on trained volunteers to verify champions before adding the trees to a searchable database and interactive map.
But many volunteer inspectors are out there today helping update the state’s records and bring them into a more user-friendly format. The state has 82 volunteer inspectors and is looking to grow that number. The DNR’s Champion Trees website include a page for would-be inspectors. It offers an online training program, but adds: “All inspectors will need to know is how to identify and measure a wide variety of trees.”
The DNR gets an average of seven or eight new champion nominations a month, says Becca Young-Fluur, a communications specialist who oversees the program. Chris Tall, another DNR employee who worked on the program, says the full database includes 1,663 nominations. The Champion Trees program languished for a time, but interest among tree lovers didn’t wane. Since the program was updated and relaunched in April 2021, the agency has received 121 nominations. They have come from people in all walks of life, including a Girl Scout group that attended a presentation by Tall.
The response has been gratifying, says Young-Fluur. “Many people are saying they’re thankful the program is getting going again. It seems like the interest is very high. I personally haven’t sent out any notices, so it’s growing organically.”
It’s also growing with new technology. The champions database is now on ArcGIS, an online geographic information system; a smart-phone app, Survey123, allows anyone to find listed champions by linking to that system. “Anyone can feed into the database now,” Young-Fluur says.
The DNR also has a searchable online map to accompany the new tools. With the help of inspectors, the old database is slowly but surely being updated. If the tree is still standing, inspectors update the measurements, and the tree becomes part of the searchable database.
Those volunteers include Tim Yanacheck of Oregon, Wisconsin, and Chad McGrath, who lives in Springstead in the northern part of the state, where he operates a nursery. They have been tree hunting since the 1980s and are among Wisconsin’s champions of trees. So is R. Bruce Allison, a professional arborist who lives in Verona and played a huge role in thrusting the program and the cause of identifying big trees into the public eye in the 1980s, researching and writing several books about champion trees, the state’s famous and historic trees, and the deep cultural connections many trees have with humans. He lives by a simple belief: “Trees need people, and people need trees.”
But the program started with Scott, a tireless state servant who had a hand in virtually every major state conservation effort here at a time of heightened concern about human impacts on nature. Scott often worked behind the scenes while serving as assistant to the secretary of the Wisconsin Conservation Department, which became the DNR. His interests were many and varied, and he had enduring ties to the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts & Letters, including serving as the first editor of the Wisconsin Academy Review, forerunner to today’s Wisconsin People & Ideas magazine.
He was a mentor to many, including Allison, who noted in an interview, “In the 1940s, the American Forestry Association [now American Forests] had started a program called Record Trees. Their idea was if they brought attention to the largest trees, it would bring attention to the diversity, size, and remarkable assets of trees.”
Scott was on it in a flash, beginning to compile the state’s first list of champions in 1941. Remarkably, he continued to add to the list for four decades, until health problems paused the effort.
Enter Allison, a young, ambitious arborist with a similar love of trees. He sought out Scott, who lived with his wife, Trudy, at their Madison home in the Spring Harbor neighborhood. The home was dubbed Hickory Hill and was the site of many a social gathering, often linked to a conservation effort. Scott was in failing health when Allison visited him to seek guidance. His idea was to use the database to broaden interest in trees. “I wanted to get involved producing something in writing about some of the interesting things about Wisconsin trees,” Allison says.
Scott listened to Allison’s pitch, “and he said, ‘Well, fine. Why don’t you come back tomorrow?’”
The next day, Scott asked, “Why do you want to do this?”
Allison replied, “I’m in the tree business, and when you’re in a profession, you have an obligation to share the knowledge base. I said, ‘Would you be able to help me?’ He said, ‘Come back tomorrow.’ I realized he was testing me.”
When Allison returned for a third visit, he got his reward.
“He took me out to his garage and flung open the door. There must have been twenty cardboard boxes of letters, newspaper clippings, whatever he had gathered about the champion trees of Wisconsin. So I realized I had a big task. I ended up taking those and going through them.”
The torch had been passed. Thus began the great tree hunt.
Allison had become friends with photographer and videographer B. Wolfgang Hoffmann. The two set out to crisscross the state, tape measure and other tools in hand, chasing down trees in Scott’s files and those from other sources. County historical societies came in handy along with another Wisconsin Academy connection. Robert Gard, a former president of the organization in 1977, University of Wisconsin–Madison Extension faculty member, and founder of the Wisconsin Idea Theater, wrote a letter on Allison’s behalf to UW Extension agents across the state, seeking their help. The replies were many.
Both Allison and Hoffmann had day jobs, but they worked around those and family responsibilities as they pursued trees. By 1982, they had enough solid material for Allison to publish Wisconsin’s Champion Trees: A Tree Hunter’s Guide, a succinct list of the top few trees among some 153 species, along with geographic locations; it was updated and reprinted in 2005.
Thanks to Gard’s help, Allison tapped the historical and cultural connections among trees and people for another book, Wisconsin’s Famous and Historic Trees, composed of narrative essays about trees that held historic and cultural significance. Other Allison books include If Trees Could Talk: Stories About Trees, a children’s book, and Every Root an Anchor, another book of narrative essays about historic and cultural connections among trees and humans.
As for the original database, when Scott was no longer able to manage it, a few other entities inherited it, including the Longenecker Horticultural Gardens at UW–Madison. The DNR took over management in the early 1980s. Thanks to Scott and Allison, the champion trees movement spread to other counties. Brown County, under the leadership of county agent Paul Hartman, published its own county guide. And scores of other people across the state were encouraged to go on tree hunts.
A few points worth noting: The designation “champion tree” doesn’t tell the whole story.
Champions are determined by a composite score of three measurements: height, canopy spread, and trunk circumference at 4.5 feet, all of which is fine but doesn’t take age into account. And when it comes to age, the biggest aren’t always oldest. As Wisconsin author John Bates notes in Our Living Ancestors, a book about the history and ecology of Wisconsin old-growth forests, white cedar trees clinging to dolomite rock faces in Door County may be less than fifteen feet tall but five hundred years old. Age notwithstanding, big trees have a powerful lure. The lessons they provide help us better understand our own place in nature.
Searching for champions can be bittersweet, as I learned when I undertook my own tree hunts during the pandemic. Champion trees from the original lists are often now ghosts, felled by wind, development, disease, or just old age. Even so, something magical often happened in my search, like coming upon a gorgeous stand of eastern cottonwood trees that regenerated naturally in a quiet park along the East River in Green Bay, just a couple of blocks from my childhood home. Those were champions in my mind.
While champion trees are distributed across the state, many are found in urban areas, towering over homes and city streets. It was on such a city street where I spent a pleasant summer afternoon with McGrath and Yanacheck, following them as they measured a massive silver maple at the home of Mark and Sandi Ticknor on Stevens Point’s north side. The tree hunters were joined by Stevens Point city arborist Paul Ziemann. The maple towered over the Ticknors’ property and their hundred-year-old home, and they were clearly fond of it. Mark is tall and lanky, and he told of gathering with three other men of his stature to try to reach around the tree hand-to-hand. They couldn’t complete the circle. However, that afternoon Yanacheck and McGrath used a tape measure to accomplish the task.
The two were buddies at Carthage College in Kenosha. They went on to professional careers, Yanacheck as an attorney and McGrath as a clinical psychologist, health systems administrator, and writer. A decade or so after their college days, they reconnected, and soon they were in the field together, chasing big trees. These days, they are helping the DNR to update its database, searching out trees from the original list. It’s gratifying work for the pair.
The Porcupine Mountains in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula served as one of their favorite tree hunting spots. Its biggest trees include one of the largest remaining stands of hemlock trees in North America.
“That became a hunting ground for us, but it was also just a happy place for us to be tromping around, just being out in nature,” says Yanacheck, who was sometimes called upon to climb one tall tree to help spot another big one in the distance.
McGrath’s interest was born in graduate school. “I went for a walk one day in a park in DeKalb [Illinois] and noticed these giant trees. I found out they were eastern cottonwoods,” he says. “I was hooked. I started looking at trees in a new way, and I have ever since.”
They have memories of the trees they’ve measured, but the reactions from landowners they worked with are even stronger.
“There have been so many trees that they blend together,” Yanacheck says. “But I remember how, almost always, the owner of a tree responded so positively. … They would be so happy about it, proud as can be.” And there’s an important lesson, he adds. “If an older guy can show a grandkid the tree, it’s a reminder that this tree doesn’t belong to anyone, it belongs to everyone.”
McGrath has written several outdoor-themed books—guides to cross-country skiing and hiking trails—but trees have helped define his life, from those he nurtures in his nursery to sell at northern Wisconsin farmers’ markets to the state champion quaking aspen he identified in 2021, near Sayner, in the Plum Lake Hemlock Forest State Natural Area.
“Tim wasn’t on that discovery,” he says. “But he came up one day last summer, and we went over there to hike into the hemlock forest. We got a quarter mile before we gave up. The deer flies were so bad.”
Aside from the personal connections many people have to trees, what about the rest of the story, say, the science?
Allison is keen on talking about that. “People are recognizing—with global climate change, the loss of the Amazon, and the decline of trees in our own yards due to new invasive pest species like the emerald ash borer, gypsy moths, hemlock woolly adelgid, and other challenges—that there’s a certain fragility about trees. There’s an appreciation for their contributions,” he says. “One of the easiest answers for excess [carbon dioxide] in the air is planting more trees. Trees sequester that CO2. People today have a better appreciation for their importance.”
Others, like Mike Dombeck, former chief of the USDA National Forest Service and a resident of the Stevens Point area, add that existing stands of old-growth or mature trees are even better at sequestering than younger forests. He has argued in publications like the New York Times that we need to preserve these older intact forest systems for our own good.
Then there’s the simplicity of how trees and humans interact on a physiological level. “We breathe in the oxygen they release, and they take in the CO2. It’s a remarkable closed-loop system,” says Allison. “We have total dependency on green living things for our nutrition and food. We cannot produce carbohydrates. They can.”
Science, Allison adds, continues to uncover new aspects of tree communities. He’s excited about recent findings by forest ecologists like Suzanne Simard, documenting a symbiotic relationship between trees and mycorrhizal soil fungi that attach to tree roots, serving as underground connectors between and among tree species. It’s a big story, one in which trees of all shapes and sizes are champions.
“We are in an environment where trees are affecting climate and our comfort, reducing soil erosion, and allowing us to find our place on the land,” Allison says.
Urban foresters have over the years been able to calculate the economic values of trees in cities. They are many. Trees help to filter air and water, control storm water, conserve energy, and provide animal habitat and shade. Oh, and they add to property values.
And then there’s the emotional value.
“The Champion Trees Program is emotion-based, and I don’t think the importance of emotion can be overstated,” Yanacheck says. “The emotion can be compared to how some cultures revere their elders. I think of the elders who came before us. That’s the presence of an old tree. They can’t get up and hide when danger comes, and eventually that elder tree dies. I have great respect for that living thing.”
Years ago, I was on a tour of Leopold’s shack and the forested land where it sits. It was a blustery day, and while we walked, a large limb came tumbling down. In that land community, when one tree tumbles, another captures more sunlight to help it thrive.
I’m happy that the Wisconsin Champion Trees Program has new sunlight, for the lessons trees teach us are many and important. We need trees, and trees need us.
Want to learn more about Wisconsin’s champion trees?
Do you have a tree you think is a champion?
Are you interested in becoming an inspector?
Visit the Wisconsin DNR’s Champion Trees website (dnr.wisconsin.gov/topic/forests/championtrees) to learn more.
While you’re there, be sure to explore the interactive map that gives precise information on where the state’s champions are located.