STEVENSVILLE — Mark Lewing has lived in Stevensville 40 years and loved big trees all his life.
He worked for the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) for 29 years and retired as the Hamilton Unit manager.
“When I was working they used to circulate the Big Tree Register and I’d say, ‘That’s nice.' But I’d think, ‘I know a cottonwood that is bigger,’ ” Lewing said.
That launched his investigation.
“The first biggest champion I got was an American elm in Hamilton,” Lewing said. “That got elm disease and died. Then I found the current champion at the school in Stevensville and the co-champion up the street from it.”
While he was working, he had seven champion trees. He retired in 2003 and realized searching for big trees was an interesting hobby.
“Everybody seems to know where there is a big tree, but most people don’t really take too much notice,” Lewing said. “They don’t know the species but there are people around who do. I’m just more technical at it.”
The Forest Service used to handle the Big Tree Register, but when it moved to the care of the DNRC, Lewing volunteered to re-measure them all.
“For three years I went all over the state measuring the trees, or I tried to; some of them were lying on the ground,” Lewing said. “I found the largest black chokecherry in Kalispell on the ground. You pick the next biggest one still alive and put it on the register. The register is really a dynamic thing, anyway.”
Windstorms, time, disease and building projects are just a few of the perils confronting really big trees.
The Big Tree Registry has standards for measuring — circumference, average crown and height. Those numbers are translated into points.
Lewing has a small measuring kit filled with all he needs: a Global Positioning System (GPS), a 75-foot tape measure called a loggers tape, a clinometer, a phone with a camera, his reading glasses and a notebook.
“When I re-measured all the Montana big trees I added a GPS reading,” Lewing said. “The loggers tape has inches on one side to measure the circumference and on the back inches to calculate diameter.”
The first step is to mark the tree at 4½ feet and measure circumference. A laser, or clinometer and tape measure, are tools for measuring height.
“You measure out a ‘chain’ (a forestry measurement of 66 feet) then look in the viewfinder of the clinometer with one eye to see the gauge,” Lewing said. “You can do evergreens in the winter but deciduous trees are measured with the leaves.”
The crown average is calculated.
Lewing takes a photo of each tree and places his loggers tape in the picture for a sense of perspective.
In the well-used notebook he records all the numbers, elevation, accuracy, spread, height, circumference, date, address (if there is one) and total points.
Lewing currently has 12 national champion and 94 Montana champion big trees ranging from sagebrush to sycamore. When registering a tree, Lewing includes the names of whomever made the trek, often a long hike, and assisted in completing the measurements. With his name are the names of his son, grandsons, daughter, granddaughters, friends and competitors — if they are working together.
The 2017 Montana Register of Big Trees lists 146 trees — 83 native and 63 non-native, with 57 of them found in Ravalli County. Butternut, boxelder, horse chestnut, bur oak, American linden, thinleaf alder, ash, black and plains cottonwood, and sugar maple are just of a few types of registered trees in Ravalli County.
Stevensville is known as the Big Tree Capital of Montana.
“There are more big trees there than any other town in Montana, which is neat because it is the oldest town in Montana so it has the most," Lewing said.
The Daly Mansion has a half-dozen big trees on the register.
“Don Wood did a tree inventory at the mansion in 1992 and he put one on the register,” he said. “I looked at it and thought, ‘There are bigger ones than that around here.’ ”
So Lewing started looking and found one.
“Wally Webber had it on Quast Lane, but he cut it down,” Lewing said. “It outscored the Huls’ plains cottonwood (currently the biggest in the nation) by 20 points.”
Lewing said he measured the big cottonwood tree near Huls Dairy northeast of Corvallis 14 years ago and re-measured it recently.
“It grew 6 inches in diameter in 14 years,” he said. “That thing is huge, 530 points. It was featured in July on the national calendar in 2013. It’s impressive and considered the urban champion because it is not native to western Montana. It was planted here.”
Daly Mansion’s national champion sugar maple measures 40 inches in diameter at chest height, is 60 feet high, with an 11½-foot circumference. It is tapped every spring, with its sweet sap added to the syrup that is sold as a fundraiser for the mansion.
Lewing said it is non-native.
“It was probably planted around the turn of the century when Marcus Daly was first planting, so it is probably 120 years old or so,” he said. “It was probably planted the same time as the big cottonwood tree on the grounds.”
Lewing called the Big Tree Register an unusual competition.
“The trees are doing it all,” Lewing said. “You can’t kick them in the butt and make them grow more. I have many champions until someone finds one bigger.”