Not many trees survived the ax when most of Pennsylvania’s forests were clearcut more than one hundred years ago.
But those that did have now reached enormous proportions, towering almost 15 stories into the sky with trunks as thick as eight feet.
And many of the centuries-old giants can be found in Luzerne County.
For several years, naturalist Rick Koval has been on a mission to find and document the mammoth trees of Luzerne County. So far he’s found plenty in areas such as Kirby Park, the Lands at Hillside Farms and Ricketts Glen State Park.
But Koval doesn’t just take a photo and write down their location. He also measures each giant to determine if it qualifies as a state champion or co-champion tree in a listing maintained by the Pennsylvania Forestry Association, as well as the tallest trees in the commonwealth. Several of Koval’s finds in the county already have qualified, including a champion pin oak in Hanover Township, which measures 15 feet in circumference, a tulip poplar in Ricketts Glen that stands 161 feet high, and an 143-foot American sycamore along the Susquehanna River, both being the second-tallest of their species in the state.
Luzerne County’s big trees also appear on the national listing, such as a staghorn sumac in Plymouth Township that is the largest in the country.
To find the ancient giants, Koval searches along the river, around old farms and cemeteries and in the depths of state forests where the mammoth trees have been allowed to grow undisturbed for centuries.
“I’m really impressed with the number of large species I’m finding in Luzerne County, and that speaks to the history of this area,” Koval said. “This county dates back to the 1700’s, and these trees are relics of the past.”
There are four ingredients needed for a tree to reach champion size – age, fertile soil, climate and a lot of luck, according to Koval. Diseases such as the hemlock woolly adelgid and the emerald ash borer are increasing threats, he said, as are the elements.
“With the number of severe weather events and hurricanes we’ve had over the last few years, we’ve lost a lot of old trees,” Koval said.
Centuries ago the biggest threat was man, as countless acres of forest were consumed in vast swaths. Not many places were untouched, but those that were now contain some of the few places in the state where old growth forest can be found. Koval said such a place exists in Ricketts Glen State Park.
“When Col. Ricketts owned the land a long time ago, he intended to timber it. But there is one portion that he never cut,” Koval said. “You can find ancient white pine, Eastern hemlock, sugar maple and yellow birch that are just enormous.”
Old farms are another of Koval’s favorite places. The Lands at Hillside Farms in the Back Mountain is home to the state’s second-largest Norway spruce, silver maples with a circumference of 20 feet along with massive sugar maples , white ash and oaks.
“Hillside has the highest concentration of large diameter trees out of all the places that I’ve visited so far,” he said. “Farms in general are good places because they’re old and some of the large oaks, maples and hickories were left standing because they served as boundary trees for property lines.”
Koval has already nominated 35 Luzerne County trees for champion and co-champion consideration, and he is currently searching old cemeteries in Hanover, Dallas, Plymouth and Forty Fort along with the banks of the river to uncover more.
So far, the river has yielded plenty of impressive finds, particularly the stretch from Harding to Shickshinny that is home to towering sycamores and silver maples with girths exceeding 20 feet.
When Koval discovers a possible champion tree, he uses an instrument called a clinometer to measure the height and angles of the tree, which is then converted into feet. Criteria considered for a champion tree include circumference, height and spread.
“In Luzerne County I have 90 of the largest species catalogued and about 70 more to go,” Koval said. “It’s just amazing that for centuries these giants have survived right here and many continue to do well.”