One man’s mission to find Ohio’s biggest trees

Bigfoot investigator Marc DeWerth is also the founder of Big Trees Ohio, a volunteer group that has discovered more than 1,000 of the state’s largest trees, some of which are national champions

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
Marc DeWerth with a white oak tree in Spencer, Ohio

During the past year, as pandemic-induced isolation kept human contact to a minimum and screens seemed to take over my life, I began to fill my social media feeds with more and more nature. Few things cleanse a dystopic timeline better than a colorful bird or a native woodland wildflower.

Somewhere along the way, I stumbled upon the Big Trees Ohio Instagram account, which is exactly what it purports to be. Each day brings a new photo of a massive tree somewhere in Ohio. Often, someone stands next to the tree for scale, and the accompanying caption usually lists the city and/or county where the tree stands (“HUGE Sycamore in Elyria, Ohio at Ely Park”), along with some measurements. And that’s about it. The simplicity of the account, combined with the awe-inspiring size of these trees, is the main appeal. With each new post, my internal dialogue remains the same: “Man. That’s a big tree.” 

I reached out to Big Trees Ohio founder Marc DeWerth to ask him about the project, and on a recent afternoon we connected by phone as DeWerth drove in his car after emerging from a rainy, 6-mile hike in Cuyahoga Valley National Park. He couldn’t quite remember why I wanted to talk to him, though, explaining that he gets a lot of calls from media outlets, but not because of the trees. DeWerth is also a nationally known Bigfoot investigator.  

Since 2012, DeWerth has hosted the Ohio Bigfoot Conference, which takes place this year on May 1 at Salt Fork State Park in Lore City, Ohio, and attracts a few thousand attendees. DeWerth, 52, is part of the Bigfoot Field Research Organization and has been pursuing Sasquatch since he was 18. “I know it exists. I mean, absolutely, I know it exists,” he said. But it’s also just a hobby. In conversation, DeWerth gets far more excited about big trees than Bigfoot. 

DeWerth grew up west of Cleveland in Westlake, Ohio, and spent much of his childhood playing in the woods. Over the years, his interest in trees grew as he volunteered as a trail builder and naturalist. He took courses on tree identification, and in May of 2017, he launched Big Trees Ohio on Facebook (Instagram came later). “I started it with the idea that there were so many unknown trees by the general public — and by the Division of Forestry and the state — that were old, massive trees, and they were just sitting there without getting any kind of recognition,” DeWerth said. “I wanted to open people's eyes to the reality that Ohio has a hell of a lot of big trees in it.” 

In the last three years, Big Trees Ohio has documented more than 1,000 trees across the state, along the way amassing more than 15,000 Facebook followers, some of whom send along tips on giant trees they've seen. DeWerth and a network of volunteers known as “big tree hunters” then track down the trees, measuring their circumference, crown spread and height. All of that info gets passed along to Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ Alistair Reynolds, who has led the Division of Forestry’s Champion Tree Program since 2014.  

“If I get machine-gunned down looking at a tree, or Bigfoot eats me or something, at least [Reynolds] will have all my records,” DeWerth said. 

Marc DeWerth with a national champion northern red oak in Ashtabula county

Ohio’s Champion Tree Program has been around since the 1950s and relies on citizen science. Nature lovers from across the state submit nominations for the biggest trees in a range of 239 species (native and non-native), which the Division of Forestry catalogs and promotes for the purpose of conservation and stewardship. “These are guys and girls that go out specifically looking for these giant trees. When they go hiking, their eyes are attuned to look for ginormous trees,” Reynolds said. “Marc DeWerth sends me more nominations than the rest of the people in the state of Ohio combined. It’s constant.” 

“You have to constantly look,” DeWerth said. “As I’m driving down the road right now talking to you, my eyes are glancing in backyards, glancing at the edges of tree lines to see if I can see a massive crown.” 

One time, DeWerth discovered a national champion tree by doing just that. He got lost driving through the village of South Point on the Ohio River in Lawrence County, and to his left he spotted a huge northern catalpa tree near a church. The tree turned out to be 23 feet around and 71 feet tall — the biggest of its kind in the country.  

Since launching Big Trees Ohio, DeWerth and his volunteers have helped to beef up the state’s Champion Tree program. Of the 1,000-plus trees they’ve catalogued, some of which are hundreds of years old, most were previously unknown to ODNR. “There's only been a couple of times where he sent me trees that I already knew about,” said Reynolds, who first met DeWerth at Salt Fork State Park, site of the Bigfoot conference, where DeWerth had found a state champion maple. “Prior to Marc DeWerth a lot of the tree [nominations] would be from big tree hunters going through cemeteries and public parks and places like that. But Marc DeWerth seems to be able to get a lot more trees from private properties and lesser-known cemeteries.” 

“When you meet the homeowners and the people that own the land, they get absolutely tickled that someone would actually show some interest in their big old tree,” DeWerth said. “They want to know, ‘How old do you think it is? What species is it? What can I do to help preserve it?’” 

Technology has also helped streamline the measuring process in recent years, too. Big tree hunters normally use a large tape measure to get a tree’s circumference and crown spread, but for height, they previously had to use a clinometer, which can be inaccurate for large trees, or an expensive hand-held laser (both methods also require the use of trigonometry). These days, DeWerth and others use lidar, an acronym of “light detection and ranging.” 

“You have a satellite in outer space that's shooting pulses of lasers down at the ground, and it measures how long it takes that laser to get back to the satellite. The faster it gets back to the satellite, the taller the object is,” Reynolds said. Once someone has the GPS coordinate of a tree, lidar data are available for free online, making measurements quick, easy and accurate within inches — perfect for citizen science. 

Currently, DeWerth said Ohio's tallest tree is a 171-foot tulip tree in Akron's Sand Run Metro Park, but the list of champion trees is always in flux. “One good storm changes everything,” said Reynolds, who noted that a storm took out Ohio’s national champion red oak just a couple of weeks ago. “But then we found a bigger [red oak], and it was actually Marc DeWerth who told me about that one. … If people don't protect and preserve the trees, we won’t have them. And it takes people like Marc DeWerth who will go out there and spend the time to find them.” 

“It's a passion. When I set out to go find something, I want to find the best, and I'll work harder than anyone doing it. I think I've kind of revolutionized big-tree seeking in Ohio,” DeWerth said. “I came to the point in my life where it’s time to start doing things in a real positive manner, to promote positivity and good things and help educate people on how important trees are — for not only the beauty of Ohio, but the survival of [humanity]. Without trees, we die.” 

Marc DeWerth with an American Beech in Athens County