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To kill a tree: the poisoning of Austin's landmark live oak has the nation outraged - and sending get-well cards.

Tree lovers everywhere are keeping their fingers crossed as an ancient live oak battles for its life. Since June, television and news media have been flocking to Austin, Texas, to chronicle the poignant story of the Treaty Oak, a venerable live oak listed in the American Forestry Association's compilation of famous and historic U.S. trees. The oak, long beloved by the citizens of Austin, is fighting for life after being intentionally poisoned with a potent herbicide.

For close to five centuries, the Treaty Oak has stood near the east bank of the Colorado River. It has withstood floods, droughts, insects, and scorching heat, not to mention 20th-century air pollution. Even before Coronado and De Soto arrived, the Indians wove legends about the tree's powers, and in the centuries that followed it stood as a silent sentinel to much of the history of Texas.

With branches spanning 127 feet horizontally, this splendid live oak (Quercus virginiana) has sheltered generations of Austin picnickers, and its branches have lured countless numbers of young climbers. Its gnarled trunk has witnessed many a young man proposing to his future bride, and more times than the citizens of Austin can remember, it has stood as a living symbol of permanence as clergymen performed wedding ceremonies beneath its spreading canopy.

But last june the ailing tree lost its leaves, put out a new set within a few days, and then lost those. As it grew still a third set, tree doctors from around the country flew to the patient's bedside. With its trunk wrapped in plastic like a bandage, the tree's prognosis looked grim.

The New York Times ran a front-page story, USA Today and the Washington Post published lengthy accounts of the tragedy, and Barbara Walters aired a "Good Morning America" segment. Thousands of Texans and well-wishers from as far away as Australia and the Philippines poured in to wish the live oak a speedy recovery. Some brought flowers, others offered get-well cards and even cans of chicken soup. New Agers linked hands and chanted earth songs. Some were angry. Many wept.

This was not the first time Texans had rallied to save the Treaty Oak. In 1937 the elderly landowner who had preserved the tree for years on its small piece of land in the heart of Austin found it necessary to offer the plot for sale. The historic live oak was in danger of being removed in the name of progress. Schoolchildren and Campfire Girls held poetry contests to raise money to help the city purchase the land and establish a small park.

The tree has deep roots in Texas lore. Legend has it that pioneer Stephen F. Austin, who founded the earliest English-speaking settlements in Texas, closed the first boundary-line pact with the Indians beneath its shade. That story is as persistent as another that holds that the landmark tree was once named the most perfect specimen of a live oak in North America. "In reality," says City Forester John Giedraitis, "there are older and bigger live oaks in the state." He quickly adds, "But none more beautiful or more historic."

On July 1, more than 800 Austinites gathered at the tree to sign a pact with nature and set up a special Treaty Oak Fund for donations to plant trees in the city's other parks. Richard Huffman, president of the Texas Botanical Garden Society, said the effort is an attempt to transform the outpouring of concern for the Treaty Oak into a permanent commitment to conservation.

The events that led up to this summer's vigil began just before Memorial Day. On May 29 Giedraitis received a phone call from a concerned citizen who reported that the famed tree appeared to be afflicted with oak wilt, a fungus that has devastated the live oaks of Texas. But Giedraitis' investigation revealed that the tree was suffering from a more sinister affliction, chemical poisoning.

Oak wilt kills the veins on the leaves, Giedraitis says, but the Treaty Oak's symptoms were just the opposite. The veins were alive, but the leaves were dead. This is a common symptom of chemical poisoning- that is, the application of a phytotoxic compound.

Soil samples sent to the Texas Department of Agriculture confirmed the forester's suspicions. Lab tests pinpointed the active ingredient in the compound as hexazinone, a component of herbicides like Velpar, manufactured in Laporte, Texas, by E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. Velpar is designed to defoliate a tree, killing its leaves again and again until its strength is sapped and it dies. The herbicide is commonly used to remove mesquite trees that are considered objectionable.

The authorities ruled out any possibility of accidental contamination, concluding that a massive amount of the chemical had been deliberately poured around the base of the tree. Given that Velpar is one of a limited number of herbicides designed specifically to kill hardwood trees, police suspected the killer had to be someone relatively savvy about herbicides.

On june 13 officials from Du Pont announced a $10,000 reward for information leading to the conviction of the person responsible. Within a week, the Texas Forestry Association added another $1,000 to the pot.

Coming up with a motive was the first challenge in finding the culprit. The most frequent question voiced by those grieving for the tree was implied in the headline of the New York Times story: "Murder Mystery Grips City: Just Who Would Kill a Tree?" Indeed. Who and why?

Giedraitis and his colleagues agreed that the attack on an historic tree was unique. The forester likens the poisoning to arson or vandalism against one of the nation's historic monuments. As he points out, however, an architectural shrine can usually be reconstructed, whereas a tree like the Treaty Oak is as irreplaceable as a work of art or any other one-of-a-kind creation.

By the end of June, the Texan symbol had flushed two sets of leaves. It is normal for a live oak to lose its leaves once a year in March. But this was june. Before long, the third set of fresh green leaves also began turning brown and sere.

Throughout June, Giedraitis coordinated efforts to save the tree. Park crews removed a six-inch layer of contaminated soil in a 30-foot circle around the base of the oak. Charcoal and microbes to break down the Velpar were injected under the area excavated, and the soil was replaced with clean topsoil.

According to City Council Member Sally Shipman, Dallas electronics tycoon H. Ross Perot offered "a blank check" to cover any and all costs of saving the Treaty Oak. On june 26 the city flew in a task force of 18 experts on oaks and Velpar. The scientists and forest practitioners evaluated the tree's condition and the treatments up to the date of their inspection.

The consensus was that everything possible should be done to reduce environmental stresses on the tree, the critical stress being the high temperatures typical of Austin summers. According to Giedraitis, the city averages 100 days a year when the thermometer soars above 90 degrees. The experts advised installing a misting system to combat heat in the crown, where defoliation exposes the branches and twigs to intense temperatures.

The tree's condition also makes it more susceptible to oak wilt, which is transmitted through open wounds or the connected root systems of adjacent trees. Fortunately, there are no other live oaks nearby.

If oak wilt is a rather remote possibility, urban pollution is an ongoing stress. Max Woodfin, executive assistant for agricultural resources protection for the Texas Department of Agriculture, points out that the Treaty Oak is located near the downtown area where pollution is at its worst. "Austin is not Denver or Los Angeles," says Woodfin, "but despite what the chamber of commerce says, we do have days when the air is hazy and a brown cloud hangs over downtown."

After the visit by the task force, Giedraitis was cautiously optimistic" about the tree's chances. The forester concluded, "The oak probably won't die, but we're worried about what shape it will be in once it stops declining and its condition stabilizes."

Max Williamson, southern regional herbicide specialist with the U.S. Forest Service in Atlanta and a member of the task force, agrees: "We will have to look at it for a couple of years. We may see that it is viable by this fall, but not whether it will survive intact and in the shape and beauty it had in the past."

Williamson points out that Velpar "has a very low mammalian toxicity and should pose no hazard to animals or birds in the area. To humans, it is four times less toxic than table salt. "

The herbicide specialist and the other members of the task force recommended taking additional soil and tissue samples to determine whether contamination was still present. The tests proved positive, so an additional three feet of soil was removed around the base of the tree and replaced. When the oak's third flush of leaves began to show symptoms, giant screens 60 feet high, resembling those used on tennis courts, were installed to provide shade. Close to 8,000 gallons of spring water were trucked in twice a week to mist the tree every half hour.

The experts' verdict was that the Treaty Oak can survive four to five flushes of its leaves. By early July, Giedraitis was saying, "We're keeping our fingers crossed. "

Meanwhile, Sergeant John jones of the Austin Police Department initiated an investigation so intensive that his colleagues began calling him "Johnny Appleseed" and "Johnny Acorn." While the detective was tracking down leads, feelings in the community were running high. Some residents were proposing that old-time Texas justice be applied and the culprit be hung from the branches of the Treaty Oak. Others suggested he be forced to drink Velpar.

Toward the end of june, Jones identified "a pretty good suspect," and on June 29 he arrested Paul Stedman Cullen, 45, a heroin addict who has served time on a burglary conviction. Initial indications were that Cullen had spread the herbicide in the pattern of a ritual curse involving unrequited love and revenge.

The police charged Cullen with a Class 2 felony-criminal mischief in excess of $20,000. Giedraitis estimates the value of the Treaty Oak as $47,000, based on a formula used by the International Society of Arboriculture. The formula takes into account species, location, condition, and size-but not history or beauty.

Giedraitis was one of those young men who proposed to his wife beneath the Treaty Oak. His feelings about the attack on the old tree were summed up in a story that appeared in the Washington Post: "When foresters get together and talk about trees, they sometimes stress that trees can save money on your energy bill and slow down the greenhouse effect.

"But the relationship between humans and trees goes beyond those things. People love trees. They are the most benevolent things in our environment. People relate to trees in primal ways, in their souls. That's why this crime offends people so much. They are disgusted that a human would do this to a tree that had withstood so many centuries against astronomical odds. From millions of acorns comes one tree, and from millions of trees comes one Treaty Oak."
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Author:Davis, Norah Deakin
Publication:American Forests
Date:Sep 1, 1989
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