Majestic hackberry may be Urbana's first 'legacy tree'

Majestic hackberry may be Urbana's first 'legacy tree'

URBANA — One of Tree City's giants will come down, but it will not be forgotten.

The majestic hackberry at Coler Avenue and High Street in west Urbana is thought to be one of the city's biggest trees and very well may be the biggest on public property. Its neighbors have been fighting to save it after the city announced that rotting limbs are forcing them to bring it down.

After a few weeks of back-and-forth between the city and residents, officials have decided most of it will come down, but they hope to memorialize the tree in some way. It likely will become the first "legacy tree" under the city's new tree-protection program, but it's a designation that will have to be given posthumously.

City arborist Mike Brunk said officials will look to save the parts of the tree that come down by preserving cross-sections of the trunk or bronzing branch tips. The city and residents have informally talked of taking donations to maybe erect a commemorative sign where the tree stands.

Time, however, is not on their side. The hackberry is believed to be well into the triple digits in age; The giant tree's limbs are themselves as big as trees, and they've already started breaking.

"We just have to decide what that (memorial) is," Brunk said. "We can't really wait to brainstorm."

Within the next few weeks, the tree's upper portion will be removed. The city will allow as much of the trunk as they can to remain for now — that will depend on what kind of condition the interior of the trunk is in.

Eventually, the city will need to decide what to do with the trunk, too. It could become part of a memorial or monument.

Resident Steve Wald was a driving force behind the effort to save the tree. He said he was disappointed by the city's decision to remove the tree. His 7-year-old son Jesse also asked the city to save it.

"A tree that means a lot to me and my family is going to be removed, but I was very heartened that the community turned out to express its support for the tree," the elder Wald said.

There didn't seem to be any hard feelings between the city and a near-capacity crowd after a tree commission meeting earlier this week to discuss the hackberry's fate. Brunk explained to the attendees that the hackberry was in even worse condition than he originally thought, and even trimming only its unsafe limbs would leave very little of the tree intact.

"I felt like they made a good effort," Wald said.

Brunk said residents' input helped the decision.

"Everybody was appeased, I think. We got a little bit of everybody's preferences going on here in this project," Brunk said. "It really turned out, with the input of everyone, for the best."

The good news: There's enough life left in the tree that they might be able to grow a new one in its place.

"One of the ideas that I like is by leaving the trunk and leaving the root system in place, we can propagate the saplings that sprout ... and grow a new tree in the same location," Brunk said.

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