Broken oak set to fall

Owner of 200-year-old tree that sparked a statewide debate says its end is near

March 04, 2007|By Bradley Olson | Bradley Olson,sun reporter

A 200-year-old white oak that sparked a statewide conservation effort in 1989 and led engineers to reroute an Annapolis thoroughfare will soon be turned into firewood.

Split in half by an October windstorm, the tree remains visible to thousands of commuters every day on Aris. T. Allen Boulevard, where it has stood as a symbol for preservationists.

But Jerry Blackwell, who owns the property now, said he will have what's left of the tree removed. He spent about $3,000 trying to preserve it with metal cords and chemicals to restrict its growth, hoping it wouldn't be weighed down.

"It's dangerous now, so we have to take the rest of it down," he said. "It's life. I mean, we're all here until we move on to the next one. Nothing lives forever in this world."

Its demise is bittersweet to the past owners, too. Glenn Brown said that while the great oak still brings fond memories of children and horses growing up around a small Anne Arundel County farm, the effort to save it devalued the family's land by dividing it in half.

"Once things ended up as they did, I would have loved for it to last forever, because truthfully, it was a beautiful thing," he said. "When all the leaves were on the tree in the summer and it was in full regalia, it was a sight to behold. I don't know who slept under that thing, but it was somebody long before I was born."

The 86-foot-tall white oak, which spanned 5 feet in diameter, is harder to notice from Aris T. Allen now that about half of it has fallen. A close look reveals a gaping hole under the half that fell, and the two trunks of the giant oak are split at right angles, with many of the branches collapsed under the side that fell.

Small piles of firewood and a few park benches surround the tree, and a short distance away lies a religious decoration that's hard to miss from the road 50 feet below: a giant Star of David, a crescent moon and a cross bearing the scripture John 3:11:

"For this is the message that ye heard from the beginning, that we should love one another."

It wasn't the first historic tree to cause a stir when it crashed to the ground. Older Maryland trees such as the Wye Oak on the Eastern Shore or the Liberty Tree at St. John's College have also been the subject of intense scrutiny or disappointment when they finally fell.

This white oak was often called the "million-dollar tree" because of the cost the state incurred when Aris T. Allen, then called Patuxent Boulevard, had to be completely redesigned.

Former state Sen. Gerald W. Winegrad, who grew up near the tree site, which was then a tobacco farm, picking blueberries and daffodils, said he caught wind of the state's plans to cut it down and objected to the head of the State Highway Administration.

When he was told there was no way to avoid bringing down the tree, he asked state officials when they planned to cut it down, saying he knew some Sierra Club activists that would probably like to climb the tree before they could.

"So they bent the highway to protect the tree and its root system," Winegrad said. "My position was vigorously against building the new boulevard, and I always felt that while the tree was significant, it became a symbol for the 50 acres of forest that were cleared so they could build that road."

Meanwhile, the new design for the "bent highway" divided the Brown family's 20 acres around the tree almost in half, seizing 6 acres in a step that devalued what remained, Brown said. His father later sued the state to recover more value from the land that was seized, winning, although it cost more than $100,000 in legal fees, Brown said.

He has held on to pictures of his father farming a wide patch of land, with horses and a giant tree. Now, that swath is split by a 60 foot-deep trench dug to build the road.

"As soon as they moved the road for it, nobody ever went back there again," said Brown, 59. "The state hasn't taken care of it either, so it fell into ruin. It was old, so it went the way of all trees."

Walt Kipp, an arborist with the Care of Trees who looked at the oak at The Sun's request, said the tree fell because the wooded environment that surrounded it and shielded it from excess wind and sunlight was lost when trees were removed for development.

"I would not say it was the oldest tree in the state, but it's among some of the older ones," Kipp said. "It was an overmature tree, the equivalent of us being in our twilight years."

Winegrad, a staunch environmentalist, said he didn't feel his efforts to save it were a waste now that it has fallen 20 years later.

"It was the right thing to do," he said. "That tree was there for a very long, long time. I remember driving by there and it always made me smile."

bradley.olson@baltsun.com

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