Where others see the forest, Richard Salzer sees the trees--championship trees, the kind big and worthy enough Virginia's Social Register of Trees.

For Salzer, the search for the ultimate tree begins with a tape measure, a sawed-off broomstick and a few paper bags for leaf samples. In Virginia's forests, more often than not, this 59-year-old home improvement contractor from Annandale who looks a little like comedian Jonathan Winters ends up finding trees that have grown to record-breaking size.

In the 12 years that he has been searching out championship trees to register with the Virginia Forestry Association's Social Register of Trees, Salzer has discovered 101 of the 197 trees officially recognized as the biggest in the state.

Among those, 12 are the biggest of their species in the country. Salzer found the state's biggest tree, a sycamore, in Loudoun County: 140 feet tall, trunk 30 feet in circumference, crown spread 136 feet.

"I tell you, you just stand there with your mouth open when you look at it," Salzer says.

"I wouldn't make no big deal about it. I guess I kind of have this affinity for big trees," says Salzer, who is pretty thick himself, with a girth about the size of the white basswood he located in Fairfax a while back. "I'll just be leaning against a big old tree and the next thing I know, it turns out to be a big one."

The Social Register was started in 1970 by the private, non-profit forestry association in Richmond, says executive director Charles Finley, "as a public relations kind of thing, and also as a public awareness kind of thing. There may be a little humor in it, but it's for a good cause."

According to Finley, there are hundreds of people across Virginia who know no better hobby than putting on their hiking boots and hunting out big trees. "It's better than hunting because the trees stay put," Finley says.

Though they do have conventions featuring hot-air balloons and square dances and impromptu gong shows, complete with applause meters, the main purpose of the association is to bring together conservation-minded citizens, foresters, tree farmers and businessmen. "We get down and talk trees," Finley explains, "but there is no law that says all serious things have to be dull."

Salzer says he undertook his search for the ultimate tree because "trees never had a spokesman, so I took it upon myself to be one. It's kind of a way to get people to realize how important trees are. You hear talk about endangered species of birds or animals. Well, trees are endangered too. We have to educate the American public to it."

Salzer goes about his work scientifically. He measures the circumference of a tree by wrapping a tape measure around it 4 1/2 feet up the trunk. He calculates the height using his sawed-off broomstick and an elementary principle of geometry.

The crown spread--the width of the canopy of branches--is calculated by adding the length of the longest limb and the shortest limb and then dividing by two. Points are awarded for each category, and the tree with the most points in its species is declared the record holder.

Salzer has also stalked trees in South America, Europe and Africa. The biggest tree he ever saw was a dragon tree in the Canary Islands. It was 3,500 years old, he says, and was wider than the length of the tour bus that took him to see it.

"I love going places, seeing new trees," Salzer says. "I'm trying to make people aware of the environment. People are so busy. They don't realize, we're just like the trees. We all live, we all breathe. We're related."