District loses original oaks

By Reuben Mees
Hattiesburg, MS (July 28, 2007)- When Hattiesburg residents began moving west of downtown in the early part of the 20th century, they made tree-lined streets a hallmark of their neighborhoods. Those same tree-lined streets gave the Oaks Historic District its name. But now, most of the original water oaks that spread their green, leafy canopies above Adeline Street or Sixth Avenue have either been wiped out by Hurricane Katrina or simply lived out their lives, city arborist Andy Parker said.

Just this month, the city’s historic commission approved the removal of three trees, including one of the originals. “When you talk about a water oak that is 70 to 80 years old, they are past their maturity,” Parker said. “They have hollow spots. They do outlive a lot of people, but that’s their lifespan. It’s time to put them out of their misery and put something new there.”
But Parker credits an active citizenry as the reason the wide city right-of-ways that characterize the neighborhood are still not barren. Specifically, residents like Web Heidelberg and other tree-lovers formed a committee that for the past 12 years has been actively putting trees in the ground.
“When I was a kid, Sixth Avenue was a green cathedral – narrow and completely canopied over,” Heidelberg said. As an adult, he moved into the Oaks in 1974 and the age and loss of trees became one of his top concerns.
“At that time, the existing rows of water oaks were pretty much intact. (Hurricane) Camille five years before had beat it up, but most of your big trees were still there and you had little gaps. That’s when we started trying to think about replacement trees,” Heidelberg said.
Although the neighborhood conducted small annual plantings, it wasn’t until 1995 that there was a major push to reforest the neighborhood. That’s when neighbors wanted to do something to remember 14-year-old Oaks resident Taylor Copeland, who died in a rodeo accident the prior year, Heidelberg said.
And it is those 60 trees, all of which survived the initial planting, that are the starting point of the Oaks’ new urban forest. Since then, the neighborhood and the city have partnered to plant nearly 400 primarily willow oak trees, which, according to both Heidelberg and Parker, are similar in height and appearance to the water oak but a sturdier overall tree.
While Katrina did claim some of the younger trees, many still survive and will be properly pruned as time, weather and resources permit, Parker said. But Heidelberg said it was a major setback for the neighborhood. “It was sad, because before Katrina, things were really coming together,” Heidelberg said. “It was almost looking great; you could really see the rows again. But we lost a lot in Katrina – a lot of the old ones.”
But the key for the future will be to continue planting trees in cycles and replacing them as they die or are removed. “We’ve been trying hard to stagger it so we have trees of different ages coming along,” Heidelberg said. “Before Katrina, starting in ’95 we had staggered over a 10-year period. It was filling in like we had planned. Now there aren’t many of the original ones, but you can still get the feel for the rows even though some are pretty young.”
While the Oaks residents are actively concerned with their trees, Parker said he works with other neighborhood association officials to help plant new trees as needed on city property. The small urban forestry staff currently is raising several hundred trees in the city nursery that were either donated or came through grants to reforest municipalities after Hurricane Katrina, Parker said.
Related Resources:
Hattiesburg American
Land Trust for the Mississippi Coastal Plain
Mississippi Urban Forest Council