Loudoun County Urban Forester John Zuiker

Loudoun County Urban Forester John Zuiker

Loudoun County is among the fast-growing counties in the nation in terms of commercial and residential development.

In this mad scramble of construction, who speaks for the trees? Who is protecting, ensuring the restoration of a vital natural resource and a key to the aesthetic and physical health of the land and its inhabitants?

That Lorax is Loudoun County Urban Forester John Zuiker.

“I look at a lot of plans,” Zuiker said. “With any development, they may be calling for a tree preservation to be done so I will go out and look at that vegetation that’s out there see whether it may be worth saving that material or it may be real invasive material that it is better to get rid of.”

As the biggest plants on earth, trees are most important because they absorb carbon monoxide, removing and storing the carbon while releasing the oxygen back into the air. In addition, they stabilize soil, provide habitat for many wild animals and provide a canopy to reduce the heating of surface from direct sunlight.

“We want to ensure that we are going to have a canopy screen into the future,” Zuiker said. “That’s why mostly, I do all the plan review for tree preservation for new development plans and for landscaping issues.”

In addition to the health benefits for man and his environment – and providing vital materials for construction – trees can also tell a story. They contain vital information about a community’s history and culture.

That is the drive behind a recent addition to Zuiker’s duties – helping Loudoun County establish a Big Tree Registry. Zuiker is seeking nominations for the registry, which will help document and to the 41 trees in the county already listed on the Virginia registry. To nominate a tree for the registry, all you need to do is complete an online form at Loudoun.gov/bigtreeregistry.

“There has been a national big-tree registry since about the ’40s and Virginia started up a big-tree registry back in the 1970s,” said Zuiker, who has been with Loudoun County for about two years after 20 years as national resources manager for Fairfax County. “Most of the local counties around here have had them for quite a while.”

The state’s registry has categories for champion trees – the largest of that species documented in Virginia – or co-champions that rank in the top five. Loudoun County has 15 trees in those categories and 41 overall in the Virginia Big Tree Program. The trees are given a point total, based on height, diameter and crown coverage (the area covered by the span of its branches) and then ranked based on those totals.

“People are very passionate about trees,” Zuiker said. “Some of the counties have bus tours where they take people around to the properties. It’s always impressive to stand next to a really big tree and it’s kind of humbling sometimes to see how big these trees are.”

While Loudoun County has seen rapid development over the past few decades, it also has the advantage of having many riverbeds and stream valleys where trees were not cleared for farming, lumbering or development. In addition, historic mansion sites such as Oatlands are sites where old, large trees have survived and thrived.

Oatlands has five trees on the estate, including three American hornbeams. While the tallest of the three is only 75 feet, Zuiker said they are tall – and extremely old – for that species. Also at Oatlands are an English oak and a gingko biloba.

Oatlands was established in 1798 by George Carter, and many of the trees on the property can be traced back at least to the planting of the gardens about 1814, according to Oatlands Head Gardener Mark Schroeter. An Osage orange on the property, which is not on the state registry but will likely make the county’s list, has a fascinating story, regardless.

“The story is President (James) Monroe’s house was about a mile down the road and he was friends with George Carter, the first owner,” Schroeter said. “We know they used to exchange plants because we have documentation of how they exchanged grapes. When Lewis and Clark went out West they brought back cuttings of Osage oranges and gave them to Jefferson and Monroe and supposedly Carter got one. That’s it.

“They are everywhere now, but they weren’t really around here, then. They had to come from (at least as far as) Missouri.”

In addition to the five at Oatlands, there are six trees registered in Leesburg, including a silver linden that hits 308 on the point scale.

Four trees on the registry are at Algonkian Regional Park along the Potomac. They include a 127-foot tall sycamore that nets the highest point total – 430 – of all the Loudoun trees, a green ash, a pignut hickory and a 122-foot-tall Shumard oak that is a state champion for its species.

Zuiker pointed out one of Loudoun’s champion trees – and what he thinks might be one of the largest in the county – is a Shumard oak that sits in the woods along the Potomac River in Algonkian Park.

“It’s a little hard to get to if you don’t know where it is,” Zuiker said. “It to the right from the boat launch and its back in the trees a little. Once you find it, you will see that it’s a pretty big tree.”

Another huge sycamore that stands 130 feet in height and gets a 395 total score, is listed in the Aldie area.

Zuiker said the tree registry is a small addition to his regular job or reviewing development and landscaping plans. He said he rarely gets involved with individual tree-related questions or disputes.

“I do get a lot of homeowners who will call and ask for advice, but I have to refer them to the private companies,” Zuiker said. “I will give them advice on how to deal with hazard trees that may be a problem for them on adjacent properties from a neighbor.”

Joseph Dill