Pa. man is scaling the tallest tree in every county

Jason Nark
The Philadelphia Inquirer

DANVILLE, Pa. — On most days, Van Wagner has pine needles in his pockets and sawdust in his salt-and-pepper beard. He teaches his high school students about agriculture and trees, trims tree branches on the side and, if he can carve out a few extra hours, Wagner even sings folk songs about the forest.

"Trees and education are my thing," he said.

On a blustery Friday afternoon, earlier this month, Wagner was 40 feet up a pitch pine, high atop the Montour Ridge in Montour County. Wagner, 46, was on a practice climb, preparing for his ambitious and unusual plan to raise awareness about Pennsylvania's vast forests. He plans to climb the tallest tree at the highest elevation, in all 67 of Pennsylvania's counties over the course of the next year or two.

"My goal is to get a conversation going about forestry," Wagner said before his climb. "I would like to see more Pennsylvanians literate in forest ecology and forest economics. It's a big part of Pennsylvania's economy."

More than half of Pennsylvania is forested and, according to Penn State, the timber and forest products industry contributes over $5 billion to the state. The largest tracts are usually parks and game lands protected by a slew of state and federal agencies. Privately owned parcels make up one million of Pennsylvania's 16.6 million acres of forest.

Van Wagner, a teacher in Danville, is climbing the highest tree in every Pennsylvania county to raise awareness for environmental issues. Wagner shows us his climbing skills in the state game lands, Montour Ridge, Danville, Pa., in mid-February, 2023. (Steven M. Falk/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)

Those forests, Wagner pointed out, are not static, like a landscape painting. They need constant logging to stay healthy, to ward off the horde of invasive insects, like the emerald ash borer that's decimated 100 million ash trees in the state since it first appeared in 2007.

"Pennsylvanians take it for granted and there's threats to it," he said. "Some trees have been decimated and others could be."

Wagner teaches agriculture at Danville Area High School, in the town where he grew up. He's also a certified arborist and forester. He runs Van Wagner and Sons Tree Service with his two teenage sons. His first climb for the project was a red oak in Montour County last month, then a pitch pine on Jones Mountain in Union County. He's also climbed trees at high points in Northumberland and Schuylkill Counties but he isn't setting any hard timeline for himself.

"I expect it to take years," Wagner said.

Wagner, who is documenting his climb on a website, said the idea was simply an extension of his passions: climbing trees and education.

"It just hit me one day while in the woods and I thought 'I bet no one has done this,' " he said.

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Wagner's particularly excited about the state's highest points. Mt. Davis, in the Laurel Highlands of Somerset County, is 3,213 feet above sea level, the highest peak in Pennsylvania. Bedford County's Blue Knob is not much shorter at 3,120 feet. In Philadelphia, the highest elevation is just 442 feet above sea level. It's on Summit Street in Chestnut Hill.

"Philly is going to be interesting because I bet some of the trees are like 300 feet tall," he said. "Climbing a tree that was likely alive when William Penn was alive would be quite a experience."

On this Friday afternoon in February, the pitch pine Wagner was climbing was swaying in the wind up on Montour Ridge. Wagner, halfway up, seemed to get a kick out of it.

"Oh man, it's really moving now," he yelled.

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Wagner was using a rope and wearing both a harness and helmet but his wife, Tamara, said she stopped worrying about his safety a long time ago. The couple met at an outdoor camp as teens and began dating later when they both attended Penn State.

Wagner used to mine anthracite coal and still skateboards and rides dirt bikes. His safest hobby is music. He's released more than 30 albums of his folk music and regularly plays at venues and festivals in the area.

Still, Tamara's pretty sure her husband, the woodsman, is most at home in a tree.

"I mean, he's kind of unstoppable," she said.


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