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History branches out

The city hopes a registry cataloging its biggest and oldest trees will protect them from chain saws and diseases.

By SUSAN THURSTON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 1, 2002


INTERBAY -- When it comes to trees, the bigger the grander.

Especially to tree lovers like George Hoock, who considers the oak in his back yard part of the family.

Hoock and his tree go back 45 years, when he moved to W Thorpe Street in Interbay. It stood tall, even then.

Over the decades, Hoock has watched two generations play on its limbs and countless squirrels leap between the branches. He can't imagine his yard without it.

To preserve its place in history, Hoock entered his ostentatious oak in the city's Grand Tree Contest. The goal of the contest is to start a list of the city's oldest and largest trees.

"We want to bring an awareness of trees," said Debra Kent Faulk, head of the Mayor's Beautification Program, which is running the contest. "So many have wonderful stories behind them."

Faulk hopes that by cataloging big trees, the city can protect more of them from chain saws and diseases. The city requires a permit to remove a grand tree, but not all have been protected.

Chopping a tree can cause big controversy in South Tampa, where people often buy houses based on the types and size of trees on a lot. In 2000, neighbors revolted when a large portion of an old oak on W Chapin Avenue was taken down.

The contest began Jan. 18 and concludes March 18. Officials will announce the winner April 26, National Arbor Day. The top prize will go to the biggest tree with the grandest history. Whoever submits it will receive a digital camera and a spot on the government's cable show.

Entries must include a photo and a paragraph on why the tree is grand. Dimensions help, but aren't required because measuring the height can get tricky.

The contest is open to trees on public or private land within the city limits and covers only certain types: magnolia, maple, oak, pine, red cedar and sweet gum.

So far, the city has received about 50 entries, Faulk said. Many feature tender tales about the tree's significance and longevity. One compared photos taken in 1960 and today.

Once a tree is submitted, community volunteers from the Ballast Point and Bayshore Beautiful homeowners associations will measure each entry and earmark the grand ones. Only trees that meet a certain point value will earn top tree status.

Organizers say building the database will take years. The mayor's program received a $40,000 grant from the Florida Urban Forestry Council to buy the software and pay for staffers to get the project going.

In all, thousands of area trees qualify as grands. Many took root long before Tampa became a city in 1887.

"They're the oldest living things here," said Melanie Higgins, president of the Ballast Point association. "You can get kind of emotional about it. A lot has happened around them."

Higgins hopes the registry will educate people about the importance of trees, especially at a time when developers build larger homes on smaller lots. The former Californian never knew Tampa had so many woody giants.

"Trees will be designed around if they are more valued," she said.

For information on Grand Tree Contest, go to the city of Tampa's Web site at: www.tampagov.net. Click on the forestry section of the parks department.

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