Marc DeWerth of Big Trees Ohio posting next to tree (photo by Ken Blaze)
Ohio Life

Meet the Man in Search of Ohio’s Biggest Trees

Marc DeWerth’s Big Trees Ohio social media accounts have built a large audience by sharing gargantuan discoveries across the state.

This is the tree that started it all — a massive white oak (Quercus alba) that’s easily 250 years old. Marc DeWerth, outfitted in khaki shorts, hiking boots and a tape measure, looks like a Lego minifigure standing underneath the white oak’s sprawling canopy — its branches reaching out and up toward the sun. Located in Lorain County’s Columbia Reservation, the towering tree measures 83 feet tall and 225 inches in circumference.

It’s breathtaking to look up under the white oak’s sweeping arms, seeing a crystal-clear blue sky and thinking about all the lives that have gazed upon this tree. These moments out in nature are what DeWerth lives for.

As the organizer of the Ohio Bigfoot Conference, the 54-year-old Columbia Station resident has spent plenty of time hiking throughout Ohio, searching for the hairy, humanlike creature. During those outings, he also felt a kinship with the trees surrounding him. After encountering this white oak, he started Big Trees Ohio in 2017 as a social media volunteer group that is dedicated to documenting Ohio’s big trees.

Now, he’s in the process of turning Big Trees Ohio into a nonprofit organization focused on educating people about big trees and helping those who have them on their property to care for them.

“My true passion is to be in the woods and to learn about the history of Ohio’s forestland,” says DeWerth. “I’m the kind of person who hikes all over the state — every forest preserve that I could find and even little city parks — just checking out what’s around. And in my travels I’d always stumbled upon big trees.”

When we think of big trees, we tend to imagine the giant redwoods and sequoias in the Pacific Northwest and throughout Northern California. But there are plenty of large trees that are rooted right here in Ohio — ones that deserve to be preserved and cared for and that can teach us a lot about the world around us.

Back in 2013, DeWerth started posting photos of the trees he’d come across on his personal Facebook page. Soon his followers began asking about each tree: where it was located, what kind of tree it was. After a few years of growing interest, he started Big Trees Ohio’s social media accounts (@big_trees_ohio on Instagram and Big Trees Ohio on Facebook) and the interest only bloomed. By May 2023, those accounts had a combined total of almost 50,000 followers.
      Marc DeWerth of Big Trees Ohio measuring tree (photo by Ken Blaze)

Marc DeWerth measures a white oak in Medina County that is 326 inches in circumference. (photo by Ken Blaze)

Today, his email inbox is full of notes from Ohioans letting him know about interesting trees throughout the state: a 73-foot-tall chinkapin oak (Quercus muehlenbergii) in Kansas, Ohio, that was struck by lightning in 1978 or a Perry County American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) that clocks in at 351 inches in circumference and is more than 114 feet tall.

“Sometimes someone will have a huge tree in their yard and they’ll also have a photo of the house in 1909 with the tree next to it when it was first planted,” says DeWerth. “It’s cool seeing those historical references.”

In addition to sharing the information he collects on social media, he also passes along any big tree data to the Ohio Division of Forestry’s Big Tree program, which locates, measures and records the largest tree species in Ohio with the help of volunteers.

Trees that are the biggest of their kind in the United States receive the special designation of National Champion Big Trees from American Forests, a conservation organization based in Washington, D.C.

Since he started looking for big trees, DeWerth says he’s identified five national champions in the state of Ohio. When he’s visiting a tree, he typically starts by measuring the tree’s circumference — at least 200 inches in circumference is a good barometer of a large tree. He also gathers the tree’s height and the spread of its crown or how far its branches stretch.

And while he can easily rattle off the names of trees — oaks, hickories, sycamores, maples, magnolias and Osage orange — he took the time to learn about each species. He read books and watched YouTube videos on tree identification. He also spent time with arborists such as Alistair Reynolds of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

“I’d go in the field with him and learn firsthand, learn the leaf and bud identification,” says DeWerth. “The best tool you can ever have is being in the field. If you have something you’re not sure about, then you can look at twigs, buds, leaves and fruit. And you’ll learn how to identify rather easily and quickly.”

While many of the trees he features are in public spots like parks, some are on private property. For those, DeWerth doesn’t have any qualms about knocking on someone’s door to ask about their tree.
      Marc DeWerth reaching tree, eastern cottonwood tree in the village of Spencer (photos by Ken Blaze)

The eastern cottonwood is located on private property in the village of Spencer. It measures 370 inches in circumference and is 114 feet tall. (photo by Ken Blaze)

“I have a background in sales, so when it comes to networking and talking to people, that’s just a natural attribute I have,” he explains. “I’m not afraid to knock on anyone’s door asking to look at their tree. And typically, they’re kind of shocked at first. Then I explain that I just want to photograph it and measure it for its beauty.”

But not everyone appreciates the splendor of large trees. He’s come across his fair share of trees that have fallen or been damaged due to factors like weather, development or human interference. He recently checked in on a former national champion — a pin oak (Quercus palustris) — located on private property in Olmsted Falls. After a snowplow struck the pin oak’s trunk this past winter, someone came out with a chainsaw. Now its branches are gone leaving behind sawed-off limbs and a truncated trunk.

“This is the sadness of stupidity,” DeWerth says. “It’s heartbreaking.”

The goal of turning Big Trees Ohio into a nonprofit will help DeWerth take his passion for big trees even further. He envisions a YouTube channel, offering free tree cleanups and being an advocate for cities to plant Ohio native trees such as American beech, oak, tuliptree, hickory, black cherry and American basswoods.

“I always tell people, you are the ambassadors of these big trees,” DeWerth says. “These are trees that have stories. I will teach you how to keep them clean and how to maintain them.”

As of right now, Big Trees Ohio is funded by DeWerth, who also crisscrosses the state giving lectures on Bigfoot and big trees. Since starting Big Trees Ohio, people have frequently messaged him looking for ways to make financial contributions or offer support — and becoming a nonprofit will allow him to accept people’s generosity.

And there’s plenty of ground to cover, says DeWerth, who spends about 3 or 4 days a week scouting trees across Ohio. Since starting Big Trees Ohio, he has found thousands of big trees that were undocumented by the state.

“I guarantee you there’s probably another 10,000 waiting to be found,” he says. “There’s opportunities everywhere to see big trees, and they become forgotten if people don’t say something about them.”