There are giants in Kentucky, and Robert Bean is getting ready to measure one of the tallest.
This giant is a yellow buckeye, and it won’t be easy to reach.
The tree towers from the steep slope of a ravine in Casey County. Jewelweed and briars grow chin-high in spots, and there are patches of loose rock that kick out from underfoot.
For more than a decade, this has been Kentucky’s champion yellow buckeye, a calculation based on the circumference and height of a tree and the spread of its crown.
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State foresters check on the champions of about 100 native tree species once every five years to re-measure them and confirm they still top the list.
One day earlier this week, Bean and Amy Carmicle-Rabich, both foresters with the Kentucky Division of Forestry, went out to measure the buckeye.
Bean, pants legs taped closed to keep out ticks, spots the tree from up the thickly-wooded slope.
“Man, that’s a big buckeye,” he says. “How in the heck am I going to get to it?”
Bean and Carmicle-Rabich find separate paths through the undergrowth and trees to the buckeye, slipping and sliding at times, then set about measuring.
That requires hiking uphill, downhill and across the slope of the ravine in the muggy heat to measure the widest spread of limbs overhead in each direction, and finding a spot 100 feet from the base to calculate the height using an instrument called a clinometer.
The foresters find that the buckeye was still healthy, and two inches bigger around than five years ago.
Buckeye is a softer wood, more susceptible to damage and eventual rot than other types of trees, so the fact this one is so big indicates it has had something of a charmed life.
“It means it has not had any major, major damage,” Carmicle-Rabich said, and was not valued for timber when the area was logged.
The foresters calculate the tree is 12 feet, six inches in circumference, 141 feet tall and with a crown that stretches as far as 32 feet on one side.
Still the champion.
Make that the “known” champion of its species. The list of big trees changes as foresters find previously-unknown examples or big trees die.
The yellow buckeye is on property owned by Amish farmer Peter Gingerich. He said he had taken several people to see it.
“It kind of makes you feel good” to have a record tree, Gingerich said.
One way foresters find new big specimens is through calls from landowners asking them to measure a tree. It often turns out the tree is not among the biggest of its species, but sometimes a call leads to a new record.
Bean said he once went out to measure an ash tree in Hart County after a landowner called to request a visit. The ash wasn’t a record, but Bean spotted an American beech in the same woods that measured out as the state champion.
Figuring out which trees have the highest scores on girth, height and crown spread isn’t just about setting records, however. It’s also about reminding people why it’s important to have healthy trees and forests.
“We measure the big trees in order to kind of promote forests in Kentucky to keep people interested in them, and to hopefully make them aware of the benefits we get out of our forests,” said Bean, the state’s chief Central Region forester.
Those benefits include habitat, beauty, recreation, wood products and watershed protection.
The American Forests organization started a search for the largest specimens of trees in 1940 to preserve and promote “the iconic stature of these living monarchs” and educate people about the role of forests in a healthy environment, according to its website.
The organization documents more than 750 champions each year on its national registry of big trees.
The current list includes 13 from Kentucky that are the biggest of their species in the nation, including two in Fayette County — a massive American basswood in Lexington Cemetery and a slender smooth sumac at McConnell Springs.
However, two of the trees on the list are dead — a trilobum red maple in Knox County and an American sycamore in Montgomery County.
The state Division of Forestry started compiling a list of state champion trees in 1968, according to its magazine.
It isn’t always as hard to measure a tree as it was for the yellow buckeye. Many are in urban areas in places much easier to reach, such as people’s yards and in cemeteries and parks.
The reason is that trees in urban areas don’t have as much competition for sunlight and nutrients, and there’s no incentive to cut them to sell, Carmicle-Rabich said.
Trees in the woods tend to grow taller as they stretch for sunlight, but don’t grow as much in circumference, Bean said.
Fayette County has the most trees on the state champion list, at 10.
The tree with the biggest girth on the state’s list is a bald cypress in the wet bottomland of Ballard County, at more than 34 feet. Foresters take the measure 4 1/2 feet up the trunk.
The tallest tree on the list is an Eastern cottonwood in McCracken County, at 165 feet.
Some species just don’t get that big, of course. The champion mountain maple, in Carter County, is 4 inches in circumference and 15 feet tall.
The list includes reminders of the threats to the state’s forests.
The champion American chestnut, in Adair County, is 10 feet around and has a beautiful crown, but is only 52 feet tall, far shorter than the chestnuts that dominated Eastern Kentucky’s forest before a blight decimated them in the 1930s.
These days, an insect called the hemlock woolly adelgid is killing the stately evergreens in more than 25 Eastern Kentucky counties. Another bug called the emerald ash borer has killed thousands of ash trees in Kentucky, including street trees in Lexington.
Invasive pests and the spread of non-native trees will change Kentucky’s wooded landscape over time, Bean said.
“We will have a different forest,” he said.
The problem of invasive pests has gotten worse over the last 30 years because of the rise in globalization, said Abe Nielsen, forest health specialist with the state Division of Forestry.
With more people and goods moving around the world, there is more potential or a bug or disease to be carried to a place where trees have not developed any resistance.
Nielsen recommended landowners have a forester look over their woodlands — which among other things could identify invasive species and potential problems — and come up with a management plan.
There are more threats on the horizon.
A pestilence that attacks walnut trees called thousand cankers disease has been identified in states bordering Kentucky. So too has the gypsy moth, which feeds on several kinds of trees, perhaps most notably oaks, and has caused widespread damage elsewhere.
“It’s right on our border,” Nielsen said.