National Champion Tree Program Finds New Home

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The National Champion Tree Program started 83 years ago at American Forests to discover the largest, living trees in the United States. Now, the program is moving from the organization’s headquarters to a new home in the School of Natural Resources at the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture (UTIA).

American Forests launched the Champion Tree Program in 1940. Its vision included establishing a nationwide laboratory for the study of forestry and trees. Being housed at Tennessee’s 1862 public land-grant university will advance the program’s understanding of big trees. “The National Champion Tree Program moving to UTIA means it can continue protecting some of the largest living organisms in the U.S. while expanding the science of these trees through research,” Keith Carver, senior vice chancellor and senior vice president of the UT Institute of Agriculture said.

“We could not be happier that the University of Tennessee’s School of Natural Resources will honor the rich legacy of the National Champion Tree Program and introduce innovative new ideas, energy and science,” said Jad Daley, president and CEO of American Forests. “We also honor the thousands of tree seekers, coordinators and others nationwide who have passionately supported this program and will help it embark on a new era embedded in one of America’s leading research institutions.” American Forests is providing $200,000 through April 2025 to support the program’s transition to the School.

Former Tennessee Champion Tree Program Director and UT graduate Jaq Payne will lead the national program as the newly appointed director. He believes UTIA is uniquely positioned to be a hub for Champion Tree research. “Through the university’s exceptional research capabilities, we’ll learn more about these gentle giants, how best to preserve their majesty for future generations and how to help our newly planted trees become future champions,” Payne said.

The School also directs the state Champion Tree Program. Payne took it over in 2021. The Tennessee Department of Agriculture Division of Forestry managed the program until 2016, when it was transferred to the School. “Under the School’s management, Tennessee’s state program has evolved to be one of the best-managed Champion Tree programs in the nation,” former Tennessee State Forester David Arnold said before retiring from his position in early January 2024. “The School now has the honor of managing the National Champion Tree Program. It is exciting to realize the program that identifies the largest representative of individual tree species for the nation resides in Tennessee.”

Urban Forestry Professor Sharon Jean-Philippe advises the Tennessee Champion Tree Program and helped with moving the national program to UT. She said it is an honor for the School to host both programs and to have Payne, her former master’s student and now graduate, be the national director. Jean-Philippe added, “Developing opportunities for students to apply what they have learned in the classroom to real-life situations is an important part of the high-impact educational practices we provide through academic internships.”

The national program started publishing a list of Champion Trees in 1945. Today’s National Register of Champion Trees lists 561 species found across the U.S. from the General Sherman Sequoia in California to a 90-foot-tall white oak in Virginia. The tradition of finding and monitoring these large organisms will continue. “We’re excited to advance the legacy of the Champion Tree Program and administer this important and historical program for the entire country,” Don Hodges, School of Natural Resources Director, said.

The program identifies Champion Trees based on a point system. The trunk circumference, height and average crown spread make up the total points for a Champion Tree. The current register is being updated and will be published in late 2024. The first round of public nominations for new Champion Trees will open in the spring of 2025. You can find a full breakdown of the timeline on the program’s website: nationalchampiontree.org.

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