…“I frequently tramped eight or 10 miles through the deepest snow to keep an appointment with a beech tree, or a yellow birch, or an old acquaintance among the pines…”
October 2010 Issue
Service Forester Brian Riley’s passion is searching for Ohio’s biggest buckeyes, cottonwoods and other arboreal giants.
– Henry David Thoreau,
Brian Riley is keeping his appointments.
After checking in with the homeowner, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources forester walks around to the side yard of a Huron County farmhouse to view the state’s biggest Ohio buckeye tree — a graceful giant with down-swept branches bearing lots of spiny-husked seeds.“I like to somewhat regularly check up on it,” he says. “This buckeye is still growing strong, well into its hundreds.”
For Riley, 28, Ohio’s champion trees are like old friends. Very old friends.
Of the 263 trees documented by the Ohio Big Tree Program as the largest of their species in the state — some are also the biggest in the country — he’s responsible for discovering 125 of them. Searching out champion trees is a passion that began when Riley was a teenager and has continued into his career as a service forester for the state of Ohio.
Many of those big trees, like this Ohio buckeye, were hidden in plain sight.
In 2003, while serving an internship with the ODNR Division of Forestry, a chance traffic detour took Riley past the biggest Ohio buckeye he’d seen in his life.
“I just recognized the form of the tree — very distinct among trees,” Riley says. “It prompted a quick U-turn.”
Big trees are scored on a points system based on their measurements. The 77-foot-tall Ohio buckeye has a trunk circumference of 144 inches and an average crown spread of 61 feet. It was a find that turned out to be not only the state’s largest, but also the biggest known Ohio buckeye in America. It reigned as national champion until 2008, when it was nudged into second place by a tree in Illinois.
But that doesn’t mean an even bigger one isn’t out there somewhere in the Buckeye State, waiting to be discovered.
The roots of the Big Tree Program go back to 1955 when the Ohio Forestry Association launched a search for the largest tree of each species growing in the state. The program has blossomed and branched for the past 55 years thanks to “citizen-scientists” — everyday Ohioans who take an interest in these natural wonders, Riley says. Anyone can nominate a tree.
“The backbone of the Big Tree Program is not the trees themselves, but the people who look in their backyards, parks and cemeteries for big trees,” he says.
There’s no better example than Riley himself. Nicknamed “Sticks” as a kid, he was always eager to explore the world beyond his Ashville, Ohio, back yard. He even kept his own tree scrapbook.
“I always knew I wanted to work with trees in some capacity,” Riley says. “Any job that I could get that involved working with people and trees was ideal for me. I honestly knew that from a very early age. And here I am, living my dream.”
In the summer of 2000, between graduating from high school and entering The Ohio State University to study forestry, Riley learned about the Ohio Big Tree Program.
“It hit me like an oncoming locomotive,” he says.
Instantly, Riley knew he wanted to nominate a champion tree. But where to find one?
As it turned out, his first discovery was right under his nose. Or, right over his head. It was a European alder growing at his grandfather’s home in Columbus, a tree Riley had known his entire life.
“I didn’t realize at the time what that one find would turn into,” he says. “That one big break is what set me on the course that led me to finding 125 reigning champion trees today, more than 275 nominations submitted — and still counting.”
As a college student, while his friends were spending their spring breaks on warm beaches in faraway places, Riley was combing cemeteries, parks and homesteads for big trees.
“Whenever I’d have down time, I’d spend that time either studying or looking for new champion trees,” he says.
In 2001, Riley’s nominations resulted in three national champions. His enthusiasm led to the internship with the Division of Forestry, which now administers the Ohio Big Tree Program.
“I realized it was the best job anyone could have,” he says. “It was so enjoyable … a labor of love. I almost felt guilty cashing my paycheck.”
Riley joined the Division of Forestry full-time in 2005. As a service forester, he provides technical advice to private landowners to help them manage their woods for long-term health and sustainability.
And of course, he always keeps an eye out for big trees. They tend to live out in the open, rather than in deep woods, he says, where the competition from other trees is much tougher.
Ohio’s biggest trees are big for a reason: They are survivors. Most are genetically superior in some way, Riley says, fending off attacks by insects and disease better than others of the same species.
That’s important when it comes to learning about invaders like the chestnut blight and Dutch elm disease that devastated Ohio trees in the 20th century, as well as emerald ash borer, which is wreaking havoc on the state’s ash population today.
When the public points foresters toward big trees that have successfully resisted these threats, it creates the foundation for research that will help develop new generations of survivors, Riley says. Already, champion Ohio trees have thousands of progeny growing all over the state, propagated from their seeds.
On a visit to another favorite big tree, Riley parked his truck near a busy intersection in Alum Creek State Park in Delaware County. He ambled down a narrow footpath toward the state and national champion Eastern cottonwood. It’s one of Ohio’s 10 national champs.
“These trees grow big, so to have the biggest of the big is quite an accomplishment,” he says, gazing upward. “There are big trees and there are champion trees. This one is the difference between the two.”
At 370 inches in circumference, 136 feet tall, and with a crown spread of 135 feet, it’s the largest-known Eastern cottonwood in the world. Riley estimates it to be 150 to 200 years old. Words — even pictures — fall short in capturing its stately presence.
“That’s the thing about these big trees. Photographs don’t do them justice,” he says. “There’s no substitute for seeing them firsthand in the field.”
Which Riley encourages the public to do. Trees impact our lives in many ways, he says, carrying us from the cradle to the casket. They provide the oxygen we breathe, the houses we live in, the paper we write on. Not to mention the fact that the timber industry contributes $15 billion to the state’s economy each year, employing 119,000 Ohioans.
Life without trees is no life at all, he says.
“A world without trees is absolutely uninhabitable. Plants and animals, humans alike, are contingent on healthy forests and trees. You can’t say that the other way around. They are life-sustaining is what they are.”
Autumn is the perfect time to make an appointment to enjoy the splendor of trees. Be sure keep your eyes peeled for giants — especially any particularly large Ohio buckeyes. The title of nation’s largest needs to be returned to the Buckeye State, after all. Maybe an observant citizen-scientist will discover the next champion in his or her own backyard.
That is, if Brian Riley doesn’t find it first.
For a list of Ohio’s champion trees — or to nominate a big tree — visit ohiodnr.com/forestry.
The Ohio Woodland Journal, a quarterly publication of the Ohio Tree Farm System, will devote its fall edition to the Big Tree Program. Visit ohiotreefarm.org.