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OPINION | REX NELSON: Ode to a tree

by Rex Nelson | December 19, 2020 at 8:57 a.m.

I love Arkansas trees. Perhaps it's because I grew up in the pine woods of south Arkansas and learned as a Boy Scout to identify the state's native trees. Whatever the case, I enjoy looking at them, reading about them and writing about them.

I'm not alone. In 1995, the Arkansas Famous and Historic Tree Program was created. Agencies of state government came together, using the National Famous and Historic Tree Program as a model. A ceremony was held on Arbor Day in April 1997 at the state Capitol to publicize the effort. The first two registered trees were recognized at that time.

The Arkansas Forestry Commission has a companion initiative called the Arkansas Champion Tree Program. It recognizes the state's largest trees. The first two trees registered were a national champion loblolly pine in Cleveland County (which fell in a March 2003 storm) and a national champion persimmon tree in the front yard of a Dardanelle home.

Trees registered in the Arkansas Famous and Historic Tree Program include a post oak at Pottsville that supported the telegraph line between Fort Smith and Little Rock during the Civil War, trees on the campus of Little Rock Central High School and a black walnut tree next to the James Smith blacksmith shop at Washington in Hempstead County.

In January, we lost one of the state's most famous trees when a windstorm brought down the Morris Pine in Ashley County. Fellow tree lovers can imagine how excited I was when I opened the summer issue of the Arkansas Historical Quarterly and saw that Don Bragg had written about the Morris Pine.

Bragg is stationed at Monticello as a research forester for the U.S. Forest Service's Southern Research Station. His talks at meetings of the Arkansas Historical Association are always highlights of those gatherings.

"In a state covered by billions of trees, what made the loss of the Morris Pine worthy of note?" Bragg wrote. "There was nothing particularly unusual about its demise--this big pine did not experience an uncommon death. Nor was it exceptional for its longevity. Even though it was far older than most Arkansas trees, the Morris Pine was not the oldest tree in the state, as there are numerous bald cypress, swamp tupelos and even eastern red cedars that are at least twice its age. Nor for its size. Although large, the Morris Pine was not the biggest loblolly in the state."

What made the Morris Pine special was that it was the top attraction in what became perhaps the state's most studied pine stand. Bragg took a slice from a portion of the downed tree. After sanding it to make the annual rings more prominent, he counted 257 rings. Given that it would have taken years for the tree to grow to the height from which the sample was taken, he made a conservative estimate that the tree was 270 years old.

As settlers began clearing the woods in that part of far south Arkansas, they set fires to make it easier for livestock to graze while also killing ticks and snakes.

"These burns left scars on the Morris Pine but posed little danger to this now large tree," Bragg wrote. "A bigger threat came from a couple of Michigan-based land speculators named Horatio Hovey and John McCracken, who assembled a 47,000-acre tract in Ashley County and nearby Morehouse Parish in Louisiana and sold this large parcel in 1899--the first of what would be many land purchases by the newly formed Crossett Lumber Co. It is unclear when the company acquired the land upon which the Morris Pine grew; this property had been patented by a man named George Norman at the Camden land office on Dec. 10, 1897."

During the next three decades, Crossett Lumber Co. cut more than 2 billion board feet of virgin pine lumber.

"After decades of exploitive lumbering, the company's management decided to switch to more sustainable operations with the goal being 'perpetual' forestry," Bragg wrote. "Circumstances necessitated that change. By 1932, the company had cleared virtually all of its old-growth timber with the exception of about 20,000 acres approximately 15 miles east of Crossett, a parcel known as the East Block. In 1939, it would be from the East Block that a 100-acre tract--including the Morris Pine--was reserved from the company's lumbering operations.

"Levi Wilcoxon, a longtime employee, persuaded company management to reserve this parcel of uncut timber along the now graveled and improved Hamburg-to-Bastrop highway. In addition to being accessible, this example of old-growth--then called the Virgin Strip--was chosen in part because it contained the Morris Pine. By this time, the giant loblolly pine was larger and more spectacular than most remaining big pines. It was estimated to contain enough lumber to build a moderate-sized house. For years, the company had taken visitors to this tree."

It was first called the Monarch Pine due to its size and then the Mattoon Pine after Wilbur Mattoon, a U.S. Forest Service extension specialist. The stand was named the Levi Wilcoxon Demonstration Forest in 1948. The pine was named for Louis Morris, who had been a timber cruiser for the company.

Georgia-Pacific bought Crossett Lumber Co. in 1962. In the early 2000s, company timberlands were spun off into a separate entity that eventually was acquired by Plum Creek Timber Co., a real estate investment trust. Weyerhaeuser Co. bought Plum Creek in 2016. Officials at all of these companies understood the public relations value of the Morris Pine.

The windstorm on Saturday, Jan. 11, marked the end of an era.

--–––––v–––––--

Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

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