A John Deere Publication
man with wide brimmed hat on hugging a tree

Andy Upshaw, of GTOC, shows his excitement for finding a very large and beautiful pecan tree near the center of Fearrington Village, Pittsboro, North Carolina.

Specialty/Niche   June 01, 2023

The Real Tree Huggers


Community leaders search for champion trees.

"I'm basically an 80-year-old Boy Scout," says Jason Welsch, moderator of the Fearrington Village Green Scene (a community group dedicated to all things reduce-reuse-recycle). He was introducing himself to members of the Grand Trees of Chatham (GTOC) organization, whom he had invited to measure and document notable trees within the community.

GTOC is a local nonprofit with ties to the Chatham County Commissioners' office and NC Cooperative Extension Service. The board members have been awarding Champion, Meritorious, Historic, and Landmark status to trees in their county since 2009 as part of the national tree registry. The nonprofit American Forests first developed this list in 1940 to document the largest living tree of each species in the United States. Versions of the list down to the county level are maintained by groups like GTOC across the country.

Before heading out from the village center to neighboring forests, GTOC board member Rouse Wilson warns the group of homeowners' association members, "Measuring is kind of boring sometimes. We just go out there with our tape measures and measure the tree."

Patrick McGahan, Fearrington Homeowners' Association grounds and landscape director, helps Connie McAdams, of GTOC, measure a large loblolly pine tree. GTOC board member Rouse Wilson studies the map of possible grand trees put together by homeowners' association members including Larry Newlin. The height of the loblolly pine trees impressed the GTOC members. This one measured 135 feet tall.


Finding big trees. Wilson easily could have told the other nine people instead that they were about to embark on the most exciting hike of their summer. Anticipation hung thick in the midsummer air.

Armed with their maps, measuring tapes, and clinometers (an instrument used to measure the height of trees), landscape and grounds committee members of the homeowners' association led the group to several trees they thought might deserve a place on the registry.

"A lot of times the grand trees are not giant trees. Some grand trees are only about this big around," Wilson tells the group while gesturing with just his hands. "It is not just about size; we look for the largest of each native species."

Interrupting his colleague's explanation, Andy Upshaw says, "Wow! That's a big tree. We have to measure this one!" Upshaw is a retired landscape and avid naturalist. In addition to hunting for champion trees with GTOC now, he teaches a community college course dubbed Plants and Rocks and Birds and Things.

To be considered a champion tree at the county, state, or national level, a tree must score a certain percentage compared to the current national champion of that species. Points are given for the circumference, height, and canopy spread.

The group identified three possible champion trees—a white oak and two loblolly pines—and several other notable trees that afternoon.

Valuing them. "I knew we would have some grand trees. We have had our tree care providers do a couple inventories in the last twenty years to help us understand the value of our significant tree canopy," says Larry Newlin, the landscape chair for the Camden Park neighborhood homeowners' association within Fearrington Village. "They put a $2.5 million value on our 400 and some trees. Preserving and protecting our trees for our residents to enjoy is a high priority for us."

Identifying and labeling a grand tree serves to educate people about the natural resources surrounding them. This does not protect it from being removed if it becomes diseased or otherwise structurally compromised.

"Our mission is to increase public understanding and appreciation of Chatham's valuable and irreplaceable trees," says Sharon Garbutt, GTOC board member. "In addition to the award program, we lead hikes, school programs, and other educational opportunities throughout Chatham County. ‡

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