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Searching for Wisconsin’s majestic champion trees

2 Wisconsin big tree hunters share some of their favorite finds.

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Photo courtesy of Fred Hoffman
An American elm tree in Milwaukee that is the current co-champion in Wisconsin for the species. Photo courtesy Fred Hoffman

Fred Hoffman spends a lot of his spare time searching forests and aerial photos of Wisconsin, looking for large majestic trees. But sometimes special trees are found smack dab in the middle of civilization. 

“One of the biggest American elm trees in the entire state is just growing between the sidewalk and the street in the middle of the east side (of Milwaukee),” Hoffman told WPR’s “Wisconsin Today” recently. “A lot of that has to do with the growing conditions. In your front yard, there’s full sunlight, not a lot of competition, there’s usually good soil.”

American elm trees were mostly killed off by Dutch Elm Disease during the 20th century. But a few in Wisconsin survived. 

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Hoffman is part of a subculture of folks who search for and document champion trees of each species around the country. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has a program for identifying and documenting the state’s largest trees. Although the program is currently on hiatus, you can see the state’s current champions on the program’s website.

Hoffman and fellow tree hunter Brad Pelzek explained their hobby to “Wisconsin Today,” including how trees are measured and the best places to look for champions. They also provided pictures of some of their favorite trees they’ve found wandering the state. 

The following email submissions have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Cottonwood

Fred Hoffman: This isn’t a state champ, but it is a 25-foot circumference cottonwood tree in Dane County.

This is one of the largest circumference trees that I have measured.

Cottonwood tree. Photo courtesy of Fred Hoffman

Yellow birch

Brad Pelzek: This is a very large and old yellow birch in Woodland Dunes State Natural Area near Two Rivers. It’s most likely 200-plus years old.

They’re rarely found at this size and not a very common tree, generally.

Yellow birch tree. Photo courtesy of Brad Pelzek

Sugar maple

BP: Here’s a large and very tall sugar maple found in Haskell Noyes Memorial Woods in the Northern Kettle Moraine.

Its circumference is 122 inches at breast height and it is 104 feet tall. This is in one of the only remaining old growth forests in the Northern Kettle Moraine Forest.

It’s one of my favorite photos showing the height of this tree in early spring. It is likely more than 200 years old.

Sugar maple tree. Photo courtesy of Brad Pelzek

American elm

FH: This is the state champion — or maybe co-champion, as there is another in Waukesha that is about the same size. It’s an American elm tree on the east side of Milwaukee.

<em> Photo courtesy of Fred Hoffman</em>
An American Elm tree in Milwaukee that is the current co-champion in Wisconsin for the species. Photo courtesy of Fred Hoffman

Bur oak

BP: This is a bur oak on the Ice Age Trail-Merton segment running along the banks of the Bark River. It is very large and old, probably 250 to 300 years old.

It’s a rare bur oak — very few are over 200-inch circumference at breast height. This one is 216 inches. And it’s a unique shape, for sure.

Bur oak tree. Photo courtesy of Brad Pelzek

You can see more of Pelzek’s and Hoffman’s tree photos on their Instagram pages, “big_trees_wisconsin” and “fred.w.hoffman.”

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