Community Environment

Ecologist Jim Scheff steps off trail to hike into the upper reaches of Little Flat Creek inside Daniel Boone National Forest. It’s springtime, but the trees are still bare enough to see their limbs spreading into canopies. To Scheff, each tree tells a story: a trunk shimmying down an unstable slope over the decades, gnarled limbs broken by an ice storm and tree hollows hinting at centuries of growth. 

We’re here in Clay County to see what he believes to be the world’s largest Red Hickory tree. 

“The mountains of Eastern Kentucky historically had some big, big trees. There aren’t a lot of records, but there are some, and most of those areas were cleared,” he said. “There are very few of those types of sites left.”

Scheff works with the forest protection nonprofit Kentucky Heartwood. Few people know this forest the way he does. He has a master’s degree in old growth ecology from Eastern Kentucky University, and he’s devoted his career to understanding the complexities of the Daniel Boone National Forest.

Ryan Van Velzer | wfpl.org

Kentucky Heartwood Ecologist Jim Scheff explains how to measure a tree’s age by its tree rings on April 17, 2022.

He specializes in dendrochronology, the science of identifying the ages of trees. This section of the forest has an incredible diversity of species: as many as 30 to 40 kinds of trees, in a range of ages, from second-growth saplings to centuries-old chestnut oaks. 

 “So historically it probably had some timber harvest here well over a 100 years ago, but there’s also a lot of trees that are well over 200 years old,” he said.  

Scheff took us to a sheltered cove on a hillside in the forest. Without leaves on the trees to shade out the undergrowth, the rich, loose soils underneath flourish with wildflowers, ramps and fiddleheads.

It’s in this stand of trees that Scheff thinks he’s found the world’s largest Red Hickory trees. Every state maintains a registry of its biggest, most awesome trees in cooperation with American Forests. They’re called Champion Trees.

Scheff discovered the current state champion Red Hickory in the Beaver Creek Wilderness in McCreary County in 2019. But there are two trees in Clay County that Scheff said “blow that one out of the water.” 

“I spent a lot of time looking at the nuts, counting leaflets with binoculars, and then climbing up there to check the buds, which you need to do. And then I climbed it in order to use a laser tool to measure it so we could get a point scale to see where it fit on the Champion Tree list,” Scheff said.

He first found them last summer and has since submitted his findings to the state’s registry of Champion trees with the Kentucky Division of Forestry.

One of the Red Hickories he found stands over 150 feet tall. The other has a 15-foot circumference and stands over 160 feet tall, making it one of the largest trees in the state of any species. Both of them are larger than the current national champion.

Ryan Van Velzer | wfpl.org

Kentucky Heartwood Ecologist Jim Scheff says this Red Hickory stands over 160 feet tall, which would make it the tallest of its species in the world.

And since this species is only found in the eastern part of the U.S., by default they are the tallest of their kind in the whole world. 

“There may be bigger ones out there but right now these two, they’re maybe 150 yards apart, are the biggest two,” Scheff said.  

Scheff has a passion for studying trees, but there’s another reason he’s been exploring this section of the Daniel Boone National Forest. 

“When we look around, almost all the trees around us have blue paint marking them, that means they are marked for harvest,” Scheff said. “And that is most of the trees here, a handful are being left for various reasons. Now those two largest hickories aren’t marked but they are still threatened by operations here.”

This section of forest is part of the South Redbird Wildlife Enhancement Project. The district rangers say the timber harvest will help to restore forest health while providing timber products. Scheff is worried it could disrupt the delicate balance of the ecology in one of the few remaining forests in Kentucky harboring old growth, centuries-old trees.

Next week on Arbor Day, WFPL News will release part two in our series on logging in the Daniel Boone National Forest. 

Ryan Van Velzer is WFPL's Energy and Environment Reporter.