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For Trees Like Bert, Special Titles Do Not Always Guarantee Special Protections

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Bert the bluff oak resides outside the Nuclear Science Center on the University of Florida campus. Plans to construct the Innovation Nexus Building in that area for the College of Engineering have gone through several variations in order to save him and four other heritage trees in the area. Christine Preston / WUFT News

People from around the country fought together through a petition on 72tree.com, for his life. He lords over his neighbors at 81 feet tall and his crown spans 105 feet. Bert is about 150 years old.

The bluff oak on the University of Florida campus by the Nuclear Science Center has been given a slight reprieve, but it’s not clear if all of the surrounding trees will be as lucky.

Plans for construction of the new Innovation Nexus Building for the College of Engineering have undergone multiple variations, mostly in the name of saving Bert and the four other heritage trees in the area.

Heritage trees, like Bert, are native trees that are larger than 20 inches in diameter, according to Mark Siburt, an arborist for the city of Gainesville. However, being a heritage tree does not automatically offer protection and neither does the next level of recognition: being a champion tree.

The state of Florida began keeping the Florida Champion Tree Register in 1975 to recognize the largest tree of each species in the state based on circumference, height and average crown spread. It includes both native and non-native species but not invasive species, said Stephen Lloyd, a cooperative forestry assistance coordinator.

The National Big Tree Program does the same for the biggest trees of native species in the U.S. Florida is home to 133 national champions, more than any other state. The quantity is due to the state’s biodiversity plus the tropical and subtropical climates, Lloyd said.

“People really get excited when they find out that they have or have seen a tree that’s really special, one that stands out,” he said. “And it gives them something cool, something to be proud of.”

However, being classified as a champion or heritage tree does not protect the tree from being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sometimes, a tree is just in the way.

“The Florida and the national program are both voluntary recognition programs. If there are any kinds of restrictions or regulations placed on them, it would be a disincentive for landowners to participate,” Lloyd said. “So we discourage anyone from using this program as a basis for any kind of protection.”

The plans for the new building were stalled because they put Bert and four other heritage trees in jeopardy. Siburt recommended that the committee for the project find an alternative construction plan.

“It obviously takes a long time to get a tree that big and you just can’t get another one. There are not that many in Gainesville,” Siburt said. “There’s lots of space on campus that you can build another building but you can’t, you know, get another tree like that.”

The mitigation cost of tearing down Bert was estimated to be about $22,000, while the cost to move the tree was estimated at about $400,000.

But some people won’t put a price on Bert. Bardia Khajenoori ran and continues to monitor @saveourbert, a Twitter account advocating to save the bluff oak.

“I think Bert is a champion tree regardless of who’s measuring,” he said. “I think Bert’s a survivor after, you know, how many years he’s been there.”

Khajenoori said the Alachua County forester determined that Bert is most likely the third-largest tree of his kind in the state. This means he is not a champion tree, but even if he was, the title would not come with any legal protection.

“It doesn’t matter whether or not there’s some legal limitation on removal,” Khajenoori said. “If people believe that something is worth saving, then that can become a protection in itself.”

The 22-year-old recent international studies and political science graduate said he considers this not only important now, but for the future.

“As we move forward and campus grows and we build new stuff – much needed new stuff, I want to point out – that we make it a priority to work with our green spaces,” he said.

Construction plans for the Innovation Nexus Building have not been finalized yet, but developers are working on a design that will allow the five heritage trees to be saved.

“Rather than looking at a site and just putting down whatever we want without consideration for what’s already there, let’s take that extra moment and maybe spend a couple extra dollars to consider how to better preserve the balance,” Khajenoori said. “I don’t want to come back to a campus completely unrecognizable.”

About Christine Preston

Christine is a reporter for WUFT News and can be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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