How to Save a Historic Oak

If you want the practical action steps, go straight to the end of this post…

The situation.  I’ve received several emails in recent months from individuals desperately looking for information on how they can save a treasured old oak in their community from removal. The circumstances were all sadly similar.  In each case, a developer, or individual had purchased the land on which an old or historic oak (or oaks) had been growing, possibly for centuries, but certainly for long enough that the tree had become a much-loved part of local history and culture. 

Yet, the new landowner could only see an old tree that was in the way—of a new hotel, housing development, roadway, or real-estate expansion of one form or another. In some cases, an arborist had been hired (by the developer) to give an opinion that the tree was very “old” and possibly even declining in health.

In most cases, the tree was named after a well-known individual and had even been registered with the Live Oak Society as a sign of its importance to those who cared for it and lived around it. The question I got repeatedly was, “certainly, there must be some law protecting a ‘registered’ tree from being cut down?” 

Unfortunately, registering an oak with the Live Oak Society or any other local organization provides no special protection to a tree from its removal. Registering a live oak is only a first step to recognizing an oak as a notable and loved part of a community. Registration is a good idea because it makes people aware of the historical significance of the tree, but unless your community, town, county commission, or other law-making body has created an ordinance or code to protect elder live oaks or other historic trees, then your oak may have no legal protection from the chainsaws of progress and development.    

There are rare cases in Louisiana where oaks have been saved. These are situations that I know of in Louisiana where individuals have joined together with neighbors and friends, petitioned local leaders, and raised enough public support (and interest) to save specific trees from being cut down. 

Mr. Al Oak, near New Iberia, LA

The Mr. Al Oak. In 2009, a 150-year-old live oak tree named “Mr. Al” was saved from certain death by a group of local citizens in the New Iberia area. The old oak was slated for removal by the Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD) as part of a frontage road construction project on State Hwy. 90.  The property owner, Kelli Peltier, called friends and began a petition to save Mr. Al.  With the help of local organizations and concerned citizens, as well as support from an ex-governor of Louisiana, the DOTD chose to move the old oak rather than cut it down. (You can read the whole story here.)

Old Dickory Oak, Harahan, LA

Old Dickory Oak. In 2003, neighborhood citizens in Harahan, with the help of The Live Oak Society chairperson Coleen P. Landry, were able to convince the DOTD to reroute the road improvements around the old oak.  Landry and the Society also played a role in saving a stand of 13 live oaks near Jeanerette threatened by highway construction by appealing directly to then-governor Bobby Jindal to help save the oaks. 

The Youngsville Oak.  In another case in which an old historic oak was slated to be removed to make way for a new traffic circle along state Hwy. 92 in Youngsville, local citizens with the help of Trees Acadiana, a local tree-preservation organization, raised enough local support (through the local press and well-known artist George Rodrigue) to convince public officials to spare the tree.  The common thread in each of these stories is local support.

Steps to take to save a tree.

1.  If an important oak tree in your neighborhood or community is in immediate danger of removal, the first step is to make loud positive noise.

Start a petition, get help and support from local clubs, tree-friendly organizations, and gardening groups, as well as the local media. Create a story of the human history of the old tree and emphasize why it’s important to your community’s cultural and historical identity to save the tree. Appeal to your local city council, commissioners, and mayor as well as state-level politicians. Make a strong “positive” argument for these decision-makers to gain their support.  A positive argument is important.  Look for a win-win solution, and other options for the new property / tree owner, Highway Department, or developer that will make it worth their while to spare the tree. In the process, they’ll create good feelings, positive publicity, and positive relationships with the community. There’s always a positive benefit for both sides by saving a tree. 

Not sure how to start a petition? Here are two websites that can help you start a petition online and get it distributed to your community.

• Petitions.net – This site lets you create a professional petition online, gather signatures, and present your results to decision-makers. It’s free and easy to use.

Change.org – This website is run by a non-profit and though the petition function they offer is also free and easy to use, they also offer help to review and tweak your petition wording to make the strongest possible message. A donation is requested for this service that is well worth it.

2. Prepare now.  Talk to your local garden clubs and find out what laws or ordinances your town or city may have in place already. Does your town have a town or city arborist?  Contact that person.  He or she can provide guidance on what to do. Most cities in the U.S. have some sort of ordinance that provides guidelines for the removal of large and old trees. Your next step is to get your local ordinance or codes amended or supplemented to include protection for historic, notable, or significant trees.  Take steps to establish legal protections now, before a favorite old tree is threatened.  

How you can change local laws.  

The LSU Agriculture Department has created a guide “To Writing A City Tree Ordinance” (a downloadable PDF can be found here). This guide provides a model that you can follow to draft and establish a “tree management ordinance” for both small and large communities in Louisiana or elsewhere.  

Post-publication addition to this post: I’m heartened to read two different stories today in newspapers in North Carolina and Florida where the communities started petitions to save old oaks from being removed to make way for new development. These stories are new, as of the day I’m writing this, but the petitions got the attention of both their local government officials and the news media. That’s the way change starts, many voices being raised to create laws to protect historic trees and urban forests and to reconsider the importance of oaks and other trees to the health and well-being of a community.

Saving the Mr. Al Oak

In 2009, a 150-year-old live oak tree named “Mr. Al” was saved from certain death by a group of local citizens in the New Iberia area.

Mr. Al Oak

Mr. Al Oak after transplant, 2019

The story was published in several local newspapers, though, none of the reporters seemed to get all of the backstory correct. This post is intended to set the record straight on how the old oak was saved, who was involved, and what it means for other communities and individuals attempting to save a historical oak in their town or city.

Mr. Al was growing alongside LA Hwy. 90 (the old Spanish Trail) near New Iberia, Louisiana, next to property owned by Kelli Peltier. Peltier’s family had nicknamed the oak “Mr. Al” after her grandfather who grew up with the tree. The oak had a circumference of 20 feet 7 inches and a canopy spread of 104 feet in 2009. When Peltier learned that the oak was slated for removal by the state Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD) as part of a frontage road construction project, she began a search for help to save Mr. Al.  She found that help through Susan Hester Edmunds, then president of the Optimist Club of New Iberia.

If you’re not from Louisiana, New Iberia is located on Bayou Teche in the heart of Louisiana’s “Cajun Country.”  It’s known locally as the City of Live Oaks and has several 100-plus-year-old specimens of Southern live oaks (Quercus virginiana) growing in and about the town.  New Iberia is also known as the location for several mystery novels by writer James Lee Burke.

Mr. Al Oak, infrared study, 2018

According to Edmunds, the Optimist Club usually plants a tree every year as part of its Arbor Day celebration. When she told the group of the plight of Mr. Al, they decided, instead of planting a tree, to pass a resolution in support of saving a venerable tree.  Susan Edmunds worked closely with Kellie Peltier to create an email and letter-writing campaign to solicit wider support. They began a petition and gathered signatures appealing to the DOTD and state officials to spare Mr. Al from removal. The DOTD was sympathetic but was limited in its choices by rights of way laws and strict rules about future expansion plans to convert state Hwy. 90 into  Interstate Highway 49.

Peltier gained further support from the Live Oak Society who reached out to former Louisiana governor, Mike Foster, who lives near New Iberia in Franklin.  The DOTD engineers and administrators finally devised a plan to save Mr. Al.  According to a February 13, 2009, letter from Gordon E. Nelson, Assistant Secretary of Operations for the DOTD to the New Iberia Optimist Club, the state proposed to construct a cul-de-sac at each end of the service road and leave the old oak growing in the middle.

Unfortunately, this first option didn’t work out and the DOTD came up with a plan “B.” They hired a company that specialized in transplanting large trees. In May of 2011, the large tree movers dug up Mr. Al along with its 400-ton root ball and moved it a mile and a half to the intersection of Highway 90 and Weeks Island Road. (you can see photographs of the move here.) They also put in place a plan to provide transplant care for the tree for several years to ensure the tree survived the move. Mr. Al’s new home was outfitted with an on-site well and irrigation system to water the old tree twice a day and guide wires to help stabilize the huge oak until it reestablished its root system.  Following its transplanting, Mr. Al received regular inspections by local arborist, Jim Foret, who carefully watched the tree’s rate of seasonal leaf shed and growth to ensure it settled well into its new home.

It’s now been more than nine years since Mr. Al was moved and the oak appears to be healthy and strong. According to Foret, the tree has root growth far outside the original root ball and, if there are no other significant natural events, such as severe wind storms or lightning, Mr. Al could live another 150 years in his new location.

Mr. Al Oak, in 2013

Mr. Al’s story is important, both for Louisiana live oaks and local communities who believe that preserving century-old oaks is important to local culture and history.  If people wish to save an important oak tree in their community, the first step is to get help from local groups and media. Start a petition; contact local and state politicians. Gather support from as many people as you can and let your local decision-makers know the importance of the tree to your town’s cultural identity. You can save that old tree.  (Much of this post comes from the recollections of Susan Edmunds combined with news articles on the move of the old oak.) .      – BG