Big-Tree Hunting

On weekends when his friends are skateboarding or playing video games, Jess Riddle looks for trees. Not just any trees: huge, record-setting specimens.

Jess is a big-tree hunter. And like the few dozen men and women who make up the core of this leaf-loving fraternity, he uses weekends and vacations to find trees that will make it into the record books. Many big-tree hunters are retired professors or foresters. Jess, an Atlanta-area teenager who has just finished ninth grade, is the youngest of the group.

"He's a remarkable young man," says Craig Noble, a spokesman for American Forests, a tree-conservation group in Washington. "Jess is the only person his age that I know of who is interested in big-tree hunting."

Every other year, American Forests puts out its register of national champion trees. Although Jess has nominated 20 potential state champions in Georgia, he hasn't made the national register. That may change, however, thanks to a trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park this spring, where he spotted a Fraser magnolia larger than the dual champions currently listed in the register.

"I've always been interested in the outdoors," he explains. At age 6, he visited Sequoia National Park in California and was so awed by the size of the trees, he had to measure their girth with a flexible tape.

These days his tools are more sophisticated. He uses a clinometer, which allows big-tree hunters to estimate the height of the trees using basic trigonometry.

"The heights aren't perfect no matter what you do," he says. So "I try to be conservative." If a measurement comes out to a half inch, he rounds down to the nearest inch.

"Sometimes when we're driving, he spots a tree," says his mother, Elaine Riddle. "We have to stop and measure."

Jess concedes he's has an unusual hobby. "I've got friends that I talk to and do stuff with. [But] my friends aren't really interested in the outdoors."

So what does the teenager do when he's not doing homework or hunting for trees?

"I look for rocks and minerals a good bit," he says.

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