Giant Bell Township oak may be one of the biggest in the state |
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Mary Ann Thomas
Tom McQuade admires the red oak he discovered while marking trees to harvest on property in Bell Township on Monday, July 2, 2018. The red oak tree is estimated to be roughly 400 years old and will not be included in the harvest.

For a forester in Pennsylvania, finding a red oak tree with a circumference of about 26 feet and a height of 120 feet is about as likely as seeing Bigfoot.

But a giant does exist just beyond the fields of a Bell Township farm, rivaling some of the largest red oaks in the state, according to preliminary measurements. And it probably has been there for 400 years.

Tom McQuaide of Torrance, a forester with Pennsylvania Forest Management, is in the process of submitting the tree’s measurements for inclusion in the Champion Trees of Pennsylvania, a registry of the state’s largest trees measured by several factors, including height and girth.

The largest red oak in the state is in Delaware County. It has an 18-foot circumference, smaller than the Bell Township specimen’s, but it is 145 feet tall, according to the Champion Trees website.

“Let’s just say, 100 years ago, there wasn’t equipment in the state to cut down this tree — it was too big to handle,” said McQuaide, a burly man who looks diminutive next to the base of the red oak, which could hide half a dozen men McQuaide’s size.

Not that he is looking to cut it down.

McQuaide, who was hired to cut select trees, and the property owner agreed they want it to remain standing.

They will forgo an estimated 5,000 board-feet of lumber worth thousands of dollars to preserve the tree. By comparison, the typical “large” red oak would yield about 1,000 board-feet of lumber.

“Let it stand as a monument,” said McQuaide and the owner, Jack Tickle.

The tree’s longevity is attributable to good genetics, an agreeable environment and adaptability, according to foresters.

“It’s in a perfect location in a hollow protected from wind and lightning strikes,” McQuaide noted.

And it was tucked away just outside the farm fields, likely shielding it from the axe.

Often, large oak trees in Southwestern Pennsylvania have iconic large crowns and are found alone in the middle of a field or along a country road where they are “allowed to be the local queen of the landscape,” said Charles Bier, senior director of conservation science at the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.

“It’s more unusual for a tree to grow to a large size in the forest like this,” he said.

“We also have fewer trees to reach that size because there are less of them due to urban and suburban sprawl.”

Because the tree has been hiding in the woods, Tickle only discovered it when he was a young teen out hunting, about 65 years ago.

“It’s been hanging in there for a long time now,” said Tickle, 80, who still operates the 103-acre farm that his father bought in 1942.

“I like to just go and look at that tree,” he said.

The red oak is indeed mighty in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, with a wide distribution range from the Canadian border to the southern United States.

The tree is common, dominant and known for its fast growth, hardiness and resiliency, according to Ryan Reed, an environmental education specialist with the Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry.

“If you are going to find a granddaddy tree, a champion, it’s going to be a red oak,” he said.

Mary Ann Thomas is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-226-4691, [email protected] or via Twitter @MaThomas_Trib.

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