Measuring champions

If you’ve ever hiked through the Congaree National Park, there’s a good chance you’ve seen the world’s largest loblolly pine, which, at nearly 170 feet tall, is pretty hard to miss. But you might have seen a few other record-setting trees as well — without even realizing it.

Known as champion trees, these lofty specimens represent the largest known examples of their type, either nationally or in-state, as determined by a formula that considers height, circumference and crown area. A 1996 partial survey of the 26,000-acre park identified dozens of champion trees.

Now, thanks to the efforts of USC geography professor John Kupfer and a team of graduate students, National Park Service rangers and “citizen scientists,” a new survey is underway that will not only update the 1996 statistics but will also give the public a more comprehensive picture of the park’s living treasures. There are currently six national champions and about 30 state champions, according to Kupfer, but the numbers could easily change in the coming months as volunteers delve deeper into the forest.

“This one is maybe not as scientific as my other projects, but it’s a great opportunity to involve a range of different folks from the community,” says Kupfer, whose research at Congaree has typically focused on the ecology and geomorphology of the floodplain itself and how sediment from the Broad and Saluda river systems affects the park.

“Studies have shown that people who are engaged in these kinds of projects often develop a greater sense of place and a greater appreciation and awareness of the places that they are working in.”

Kupfer reached out to groups like the Midlands Master Naturalist Association and the Eastern Native Tree Society to spread the word about the project. He also approached people with a deep knowledge of the area, such as local naturalist John Cely and USC statistics professor John Grego, who also serves as president of the Friends of Congaree Swamp.

Strictly by word of mouth and social media, and with the assistance of National Park Service scientists, Kupfer rounded up two dozen volunteers over the past eight months. These volunteers attended training sessions to learn not just how to take measurements but also what to look for.

“The study is aimed at finding the largest individual trees of their type, and while we tend to think of loblolly pine or Shumard oak, these really big trees — loblollies can be 160 feet tall — we’re also looking for understory trees and smaller trees. On our list of trees to look for, we have some that might not be more than 40 or 50 feet tall, but that’s still the extreme for that tree.”

So far, Kupfer’s survey has identified a handful of new state champions, including examples of ironwood, baccharis and water locust. Meanwhile, his team is noting trees that might not be champion size yet but that are close enough that they could one day rise to the occasion.

“The duration of the grant is not quite another year,” Kupfer says. “But it’s really going to extend beyond that because it’s a huge task, it’s a big place. Some areas have been sampled really well in previous surveys, and other places are really difficult to get to and haven’t been sampled at all.”

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