New Jersey Giving Big Trees Their Due

by Michele S. Byers, Executive Director, New Jersey Conservation Foundation

Every year around this time, public attention focuses on enormous evergreen trees – the kind that are festooned in twinkling lights at Rockefeller Center, the White House lawn and other public places.

In New Jersey, there’s a quieter search going on for gigantic trees, and not just those of the holiday variety. The state Division of Parks and Forestry is updating its list of “Champion Trees,” and you can help find them.


Truly big trees are exceptional. Woodlands all over New Jersey were gradually cleared by early settlers, so the forests we see today are often “young” compared to the vast virgin forests of the distant past. Really big trees are like historic markers – sentinels that have stood and watched our state become settled, colonized and developed. In silence they have witnessed everything from the Revolutionary War to the Industrial Revolution to post-World War II suburbanization.

The state’s Champion Tree list was started in 1954 and has periodically been updated, most recently in 1998. It includes the largest specimens of about 100 native and naturalized species. The full 1998 list was published in the book New Jersey’s Big Trees.

A review of the 1998 list is bittersweet. By some estimates, almost half of the trees have been cut down, primarily due to development.

Many would argue that the aesthetic benefits of big trees are reason enough to preserve them. But if you need convincing about the value of trees, read on.

Trees fight water pollution. They filter contaminants out of water, and they help reduce stormwater runoff and soil erosion. Collectively, these functions keep our water supply system clean and safe, and at a cost exponentially lower than the cost of building and running water treatment plants.

Trees remove many pollutants from our air, not least of which is carbon. In fact, older trees store more carbon in their wood than younger trees. This cleans our air, and mitigates the effects of greenhouse gases and global climate change.

And don’t forget shade. In summer, trees provide a break from the sun’s rays, which can yield real energy savings for homes and businesses. Urban trees cool our cities and towns, and improve the quality of life.

Just one big tree provides thousands of dollars in pollution and erosion control in just one year. The sum contribution by our forests, in the form of all these “ecoservices,” is worth millions every year, and billions over a few decades.

The N.J. Division of Park & Forestry hopes to one day have a program in place to protect our big trees – sort of a “register of historic places” for these living giants.

Until that day comes, you can help identify New Jersey’s woody giants. Each contender for the Champion List is evaluated by trunk circumference, as well as height and the distance the leaf canopy, or crown, spreads.

To learn how to properly measure and nominate a Big Tree, visit the Division’s website at . From there you can check out the list of current champions and download a nomination form for a new contender. So get out there and see what you can find!

And I hope you will consult New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s website at or contact me at, if you would like more information about conserving New Jersey’s precious land and natural resources.

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