From Zoo to You

If you close your eyes and imagine a southwest Kansas landscape, many things may come to mind that are representative of our shortgrass prairie natural ecosystem. Gorgeous sunsets with a flat horizon dotted with windmills and cattle. Amber waves of grain blowing in the wind as western meadowlarks sing their lovely song. And yet, typically, at least for me anyway, trees are rarely part of the picture. Sure, traveling from here to there, you may spot a cluster of old cottonwoods, but for the most part in southwest Kansas, outside of cities, trees are not the norm.

When compared to the fields surrounding Garden City, trees are in abundance here at the Lee Richardson Zoo. In fact, some may be surprised to discover that the zoo is home to a few State Champion Trees. The Kansas Forest Service partners with American Forests to determine State and National Champion Trees. Nominations are judged on a point system established by the American Forests National Register of Big Trees. Total points are equal to the tree’s circumference in inches, plus height in feet plus the crown spread in feet divided by four. Crown spread is a measurement in feet from the tip of the branch farthest from the opposite side of the tree; then, the same measurement is made at a right angle to the first. The two measurements are averaged.

Champion Trees are those that grow where their environmental conditions are favorable, and they can grow larger and taller than the average of their species regardless of their age. On the West Lawn of the zoo (where the gazebo and picnic shelters are located), you can find a southwestern white pine tree that has earned 147 points and became a champion in 2018. Near the entry of the zoo, guests can visit a champion Chinese lacebark elm measuring over 62 feet tall and a near 10-foot circumference. Look for signs on or near the tree to denote its championship.

Around 150 State Champion Trees are dotted across Kansas and a few Champion Trees in the northeastern portion of our state are also listed as National Champions. Only about 10 percent of Kansas is forested. The United States Department of Agriculture estimates that Kansas has more than five million acres of trees totaling approximately 838,000,000 trees! The Kansas Forest Service recognizes several types of forested ecosystems, including rural forests, windbreaks, and shelter belts. However, Champion Trees can show up just about anywhere, including southwest Kansas zoos!

No matter where they grow, trees have provided our world with shelter, food, medicine, and tools since their existence. Trees help create oxygen and clean carbon dioxide out of the air; they prevent soil erosion as well as provide habitat resources for wildlife. From our national forests to our own backyards, trees provide a valuable service to our world. For more information on champion trees, how to spot, how to nominate, or how to grow your own, visit the zoo or stop by the Kansas Forest Service’s website at

Emily Sexson is the conservation education manager at Lee Richardson Zoo.