Ultimate tree hugger hunts for champion trees

Dave Shepard is on a mission to nominate Will County trees to the Illinois Big Tree Register

|  Story by Cindy Cain  |


On a sizzling hot morning in July, Dave Shepard walked into a patch of densely shaded woods to wrap his arms around some trees. 

Shepard’s embrace allowed him to stretch his tape measure around the trunks of mega trees that call the Forest Preserve District’s Messenger Woods Nature Preserve home. 

The environmental science teacher and tree aficionado is on a mission to nominate Will County trees to the Illinois Big Tree Register, which was created in 1962 “to appreciate, discover, and record the largest native tree species in the state.” 

Almost 40 years ago, Shepard successfully nominated five trees to the list, including a northern red oak and a black maple at Messenger Woods. But then life intervened. He married, moved, and began teaching at three area colleges while also becoming active on tree boards and in restoration projects.

When Shepard heard the state had cleared its Big Tree list in 2013 to recertify the state’s tree champions, he said he knew he had to get back to the woods, back to his roots, and back to nominating champion trees. 

A special place

Dave Shepard walking the trail at Messenger Woods.

For Shepard, Messenger Woods is a special place. It is a place where oaks, maples and other tree species live in harmony and grow to gargantuan heights. 

Messenger Woods is the Forest Preserve District’s oldest forest preserve dating back to 1930, just a few years after the District was formed by referendum in 1926. Its trees have been protected for almost a century, untouched other than by occasional prescribed burning to keep the understory in check.

“One of the reasons that we have big trees at Messenger Woods is because the woods were sunnier in the past,” said Juli Mason, the Forest Preserve District’s restoration program coordinator. “This allowed individual trees to have more light and nutrients apiece, so that many individuals could grow big.

“A dense forest would be less likely to grow such big trees. Woodlands that are managed tend to be sunnier and more likely to grow the next generation’s champion trees,” Mason added. “Hopefully, we can celebrate the champion trees that are out there now, and also manage the woods to have the next generation of champion trees as well.”

Shepard said Messenger Woods has another feature that helps trees grow to their maximum height.

“The forest floor is covered with leaf litter or duff layer or sometimes referred to as the mull layer consisting of decayed organic debris,” he explained. “This duff layer is essential for providing insulation, moisture, and nutrient enrichment. More specifically, it protects and feeds the trees roots, providing water and insulation from extreme heat or cold as well a host of microorganisms like mycorrhizae fungi that feed the tree.”

Circumference, height and crown spread

Dave Shepard and Forest Preserve staff measuring a tree at the site.

The COVID-19 pandemic delayed Shepard’s forest foray in the spring, so he trekked to Messenger Woods on July 7 to record the size of four trees: jack pine, red pine, black maple and red oak.

During his Messenger Woods outing, Shepard wrapped a forestry tape measure around the trunk of his target trees to discover their circumference. Next up, he paced off 100 feet with the tape measure and then used a clinometer to gauge the height. And then he used the tape measure again to record the crown spread by measuring two angles. 

Each tree’s GPS coordinates were recorded, and the final step included a few snapshots of each tree and its canopy.

All these steps are outlined on the Illinois Big Tree Register’s website. The final formula for determining the tree’s score is as follows: circumference (inches) + total height (feet) + ¼ average crown width (feet) = total score. 

Some of the trees measured by Shepard, with assistance from Mason, might be a shoo-in because no other members of the species have been nominated so far. 

Shepard plans to send his measurements and the final “score” for each tree to the Illinois Big Tree Register for review and possible inclusion on the updated champion list, which currently features 88 Illinois trees, two of which are national champions. 

The scores computed by Shepard are as follows: red oak, 285; jack pine, 152; black maple, 241; and red pine, 119.

Nominations are due each year by August 1 and the results are published the following February. The list was updated in May 2020 and all trees must be remeasured every 10 years. Currently, there are no Will County trees on the list.

Big Tree Register

Looking up a tree at Messenger Woods.

That is why Shepard is on a mission to find Will County’s biggest trees for possible inclusion on the list. 

Jay Hayek, forestry specialist for the University of Illinois Extension and coordinator of the Big Tree program in Illinois, said he would love to have more volunteers searching for Big Tree candidates in Will County and throughout Illinois. 

Hayek said finding these “giants” is a way to document and recognize our natural history, and it also gets more people outside and away from the Internet and TV. 

“Trees are the world’s largest terrestrial perennial plants and those of us with a penchant for trees are drawn to them for a myriad of reasons,” he added. “To some people, the affinity may be spiritual (that’s the category I fall into). I also like exploring new places – new state/county parks, new forest preserves, forest habitat, geographic regions, etc.”

Anyone can become a champion tree hunter, Hayek said. 

“Our volunteers come from all backgrounds: teachers (especially those in the STEM fields); botanists, foresters, and natural resource specialists; arborists; master gardeners and master naturalists; and everyday citizens who prefer to be outside exploring parks, cemeteries and forests.”

And they do it for many reasons, he added. 

“Some big tree aficionados do it for bragging rights, some do it for exercise, and some do it for exploration of the natural world around us.” 

And while the register is titled Big Tree, not all trees are “huge,” he said. 

“We do have what I like to call our ‘little’ Big Tree champions that recognize the stature of some of our diminutive native species that don’t grow to be 80-feet tall. Examples include our native viburnums, dogwoods and serviceberries.”

No matter what the size, all trees deserve our admiration, he added. 

“Trees and forests provide a wide array of vital ecosystem services: carbon sequestration, habitat for wildlife, oxygen, watershed/water quality benefits, aesthetic beauty, shade, wood products for society, etc.” 

A passion for trees

Dave Shepard looking up at a tree.

Shepard, a Chicago native, said he first fell in love with trees as a child when he traveled to Michigan and he saw “gigantic” tulip trees that were more than 120 feet tall.

His love of trees and nature drew him to get a master’s degree in urban forestry and become a professor at Governors State University, Moraine Valley Community College and South Suburban College.

“Illinois is known as the prairie state and there has been, probably, a deemphasis on trees,” he said. “So that is one of the things I try to promote when I teach classes.”

As he stood in Messenger Woods on that hot July day wearing an “Earth Day Every Day” black-and-green T-shirt, he had a message for those who might take trees for granted.

“The importance of trees to the environment and carbon sequestration as well as wildlife habitat … is just immense,” he said. “That’s why I really have a passion for this, and I think it’s very important for people to know about it.”


(Photos by Chad Merda)

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