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Big Tree Hunters Search For Champions

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A recently dethroned Kentucky Coffee Tree.
Donna Will
A recently dethroned Kentucky Coffee Tree.

Retired teacher Joe Howard says there's nothing quite like a really big tree. "Big trees can take your breath way. When you think of how big trees have been around longer than any of us, what they’ve been through and how they’ve weathered adversity and are still going strong, you can’t help but admire them," he says.

For the past 20 years, Joe and his friend Donna Will have been driving across Montgomery County in search of trees to nominate to the National Register, which evaluates champions for each species according to their circumference, height and spread.

Howard, a retired teacher, says there's nothing quite like a really big tree.

"Big trees can take your breath way," he says. "When you think of how big trees have been around longer than any of us, what they've been through and how they’ve weathered adversity and are still going strong, you can't help but admire them."

Will says Howard will call her when he's identified a big tree.

"I have my jeep at the ready, and my camera set, and my batteries and I hop in," says Howard. "Just about every week, we're out and about hunting the big trees."

He says he always carries his measuring tape with him.

"It's gotten me to stop traffic sometimes, if a tree is along the road," he says. And he says his proudest find was a thorny tree on the edge of Rock Creek Regional Park.

"This is a Cockspur Hawthorn," he says. "This is a tree I nominated that finally got my name in the National Register of Champion Trees."

As it turns out, Howard says another tree has dethroned his Hawthorn to become champion this year.

"In a way, I'm sad. In another way, I'm glad," he says. "I love that people keep looking for big trees."

Will says being a Big Tree Hunter isn't just about competition. It's about conservation.

"It's very important to keep an eye out for these big trees because when the public becomes aware of them, they stay safer," she says.

But Howard says he's still in it to win it. And there’s a tree down the street he's pretty sure will be a champion next year.

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