Magazine article American Forests

Hunting the Swamps: Virginia's Big-Tree Hunter Leaves No Stone Unturned nor Swamp Unexplored in His Search for Champion Trees

Magazine article American Forests

Hunting the Swamps: Virginia's Big-Tree Hunter Leaves No Stone Unturned nor Swamp Unexplored in His Search for Champion Trees

Article excerpt

The Louis Vieux was a grand tree, the national champion American elm. Kansas isn't exactly known for its large trees, and state residents were proud of this one, rising in majestic isolation out of the plains near the old Oregon Trail. So in 1985, when Byron Carmean discovered a larger American elm in Virginia, there was understandably something of an uproar.

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"They sent a delegation from Kansas to see our tree, to make darn sure we hadn't fudged in some way," said Carmean, who is still amused years later. But when the tape measure was brought out, it had to be faced: the measurements were accurate. The Louis Vieux was officially deposed-though only for a few years until Virginia's new champ died from Dutch elm disease. Not that the Virginia champ's meteoric rise and fall matters much to Byron Carmean. He has plenty of other state and national champs to prove his big tree-finding prowess.

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Here at AMERICAN FORESTS, Byron Carmean is known as the man who put Virginia on the map. Equipped with his inclinometer, camera, GPS, tape measure, and note-taking materials, Carmean has nominated 21 of the national champions and co-champions that appear in this year's National Register of Big Trees (see the Spring 08 issue).

Carmean often goes out exploring with friends or his wife, but customarily he searches out big trees with partner Gary Williamson, a retired state park ranger. Back in the late 1980s, the two used to travel hundreds of miles and spend several days at a time exploring the mountains of western Virginia. These days they stay closer to home, but they have plenty to keep them busy nearly every weekend in nearby Virginia woods and swamps, like the Black Water River and Nottoway River drainage. "There are big trees everywhere; you just have to know what you're looking for," said Williamson.

While the partners have favorite swamps to canoe, they also explore new areas, and many times their services are requested. "It's just sort of a new adventure each time. I love the places I go to--they are some of the most beautiful places around," said Carmean.

The partners work well and companionably together, given their common interest. "Between the two of us," said Williamson, "we don't miss much." As a naturalist, Williamson's area of expertise was herpetology, but he prides himself on knowing a little bit about a lot of things. A big picture kind of person, he likes to notice interesting plants, birds, and animals. Carmean is better at identifying trees than most professional

Williamson likes to take the wheel when they drive through new territory, because Carmean can spot big or unusual trees out of the corner of his eye, even while speeding along at 55 miles an hour in the passenger seat. "He can identify the big trees by their shape," said Williamson. "He can ID trees like Tiger Woods can drive golf balls."

Carmean has always loved nature, and trees are his particular passion. A high-school horticulture and forestry teacher, he prepared his students for annual contests run by the national organization Future Farmers of America, to test the young people in their agriculture and forestry knowledge. About 25 years ago, while flipping through one of his school's forestry magazines, Carmean read a special article on big trees and was surprised at one of the entries. He suspected that a tree he knew about might be bigger than the sweet-leaf champion listed. He called a friend from the Department of Forestry and the two of them measured Carmean's candidate. …

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