Some people see a big tree, and that is all they see. But Brian French sees a champion; he sees something significantly more than just a large tree.

“To me, big trees in urban communities are ambassadors for all trees,” he said.

by: PHOTO BY ALEX RAGUS - Brian French is shown above measuring the national champion Pinus ponderosa, or Ponderosa pine. The tree, located in Oregons La Pine State Park, is the largest of its species; it is visited by thousands of people each year.French, a certified arborist/tree risk assessor, will share his treetop vision from 7 to 8 p.m. Monday, Jan. 13, at the Milwaukie Center. He also will show his 28-minute film “Treeverse.” The event is sponsored by the Clackamas County Master Gardeners, and is free and open to the public.

French’s presentation, “Looking Up — The Benefits of Our Oldest Trees,” will explain the many functions of big trees in urban areas.

“They do represent the pinnacle of what a species can be in size and habitat,” he said. And then there is the human-tree relationship.

“We look at old trees as something important. When trees are 300 to 400 years old, we imagine what the world must have looked like then. They are the evidence of where we came from,” French said.

In his presentation, he wants to encourage gardeners to look up and appreciate old trees in the landscape. He wants landscapers to understand that cutting down old trees and replanting young trees is not always the answer.

He will also share information about his nonprofit organization, Ascending the Giants.

“Our group is apolitical and nonconfrontational. We work with parks, cities and private property owners, to educate folks about the importance of trees,” French said.

Anyone interested in trees will benefit from the presentation, he said, adding that one reason he likes doing these talks is what happens afterward.

“People come up to me and tell me they know where a big tree is. We meet other people and network, and I tell them I am really interested in coming out and seeing their trees.”

Canopy ‘Treeverse’

Another facet of French’s presentation will be a screening of his film “Treeverse,” made in 2011. During the filming, French and Will Koomjian, also an arborist, set off on a canopy trek through an old-growth Oregon white oak forest.

The two men made the film to introduce modern tree climbing, what French calls “expedition-style climbing,” to as many people as they could.

“We went from the top of one tree to another for one kilometer with no ground support. We slept and ate in the tops of these trees for five days in a grove of trees just off Central Point Road in Oregon City,” he said.

They raised $10,000 to make the film, aided by $200,000 in pro-bono and sponsorships, French said.

A 12-man film crew, some in helicopters, recorded the effort and the resulting film was shown in the 2012 world tour of the Banff Film Festival, the world’s biggest adventure film festival. Viewers in 97 countries saw the film, French said.

Even better, “Oregon Field Guide” won an Emmy for the “Making of Treeverse,” he said.

Tree love started early

French’s love affair with trees and his passion to conserve and protect them began at an early age, when he was growing up in the wide-open spaces in Kentucky, where his best friend lived half a mile away.

Then, when he was 18 and living in Monterey, Calif., he saw a man climbing trees who asked him if he wanted a job.

“Rigging, harnessing — oh yeah, that’s what I wanted to do,” French said.

Later, he and a friend were working for a company, measuring large trees that were on “an epic scale,” and they wondered what it would be like to be in the top of those trees.

“With the utmost respect we climbed to the top of some trees on the upper Clackamas River in a snowstorm, and we were really hooked on a new way to approach tree climbing,” he said.

In 2008, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife connected French and his colleagues with the National Center for Conservation Science and Policy, based in Ashland.

“They had a tree registry, and we asked them if they needed help measuring big trees. Then we started Ascending the

Giants, and in 2009 we adopted the registry, renaming it the

Oregon Champion Tree Registry,” French said.

“It is a compilation of measurements. We take in measurements of trees and verify them, and we search for big trees. We measure their height, their circumference at breast height, and their crown width to come up with the total value of that tree. And then we compare information gathered from other trees to determine the oldest trees.”

As the state coordinator for the Champion Tree Registry, French has a mission of sorts.

“We like to photograph and document old trees, and encourage people to go see trees. There are not very many of those trees around any more, and we want to share them,”he said.

Organization sponsors talk

As program chairwoman for the Clackamas County Master Gardeners, Laura Eyer is always looking for inspirational speakers for the group’s meetings, held at 7 p.m. the second Monday of each month at the Milwaukie Center.

“We try to find individuals who are accomplished in their field, are good speakers and who give university research-based information to our chapter members and the general public. Some of our programs qualify for educational credits that Master Gardeners must earn if they wish to work with the public,” she said.

Eyer heard French speak at the Master Gardener Mini-College on the Oregon State University campus last summer.  After speaking to the audience about the importance of old-growth trees, he showed his film, “Treeverse,” and she found him to be “an entertaining, erudite fellow.”

French has “reverence for large trees of all species and then shares this with the public in an apolitical approach to better tree protection,” Eyer said.

She added, “Sometimes people take for granted the value of big trees. They just always are there, indestructible and part of the landscape. What is not always thought about is what these trees do for communities, the forest and wildlife. It takes someone like Brian who is passionate about his lifework to remind us of their value.” To learn more about the Clackamas County Master Gardeners, visit

Root of the issue

What: “Looking Up — The Benefits of Our Oldest Trees”

Who: Clackamas County Master Gardeners present certified arborist Brian French

When: 7 to 8 p.m. Monday, Jan. 13

Where: The Milwaukie Center, 5440 S.E. Kellogg Creek Drive

Call: 503-653-8100

More: French also will show his 28-minute film, “Treeverse.” The meeting is free and open to the public. To learn more and see a clip from “Treeverse,” visit

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