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Foresters view landmark trees as treasure

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Lewis Stiles will never forget that spring day in 1982 when his old friend was killed by a bolt of lightning.

``It was a shocker,'' recalls Stiles, a retired veterinarian who lives near Broken Bow in southeastern Oklahoma. ``It was almost a member of the family.''

The loved one, a bald cypress with a trunk more than 32 feet around, was once the largest known tree in Oklahoma.

``A seedling when Christ was on Earth,'' as Stiles put it, the tree stood by a creek crossing for an estimated 2,000 years. A landmark among natives, explorers and settlers, it also towered over a military trail that led between frontier forts and witnessed the Trail of Tears relocation of American Indians.

Today, its lifeless, hollowed trunk still rises 90 feet above land Stiles owns.

However, across Oklahoma, many other great and grand trees, none quite as large and probably not as old, live on. For many people, a tree such as those is a living monument to the patience and persistence of nature in a changing world, a silent reminder of how fleeting our own time is.

``You know that was something that was here before you, and it's going to be here after you,'' said Mark Bays, urban forestry coordinator for the state Agriculture, Food and Forestry Department. ``It's kind of humbling.''

To recognize Oklahoma's best examples of arboreal achievement, the Agriculture Department maintains a registry of ``champion trees.'' The list has more than 130 trees that, judged by a set of measurements, are the largest of their species.

Another tree-honoring program, the ``Witness Tree Project,'' is being launched by state foresters and the Tree Bank Foundation. The idea, part of Oklahoma's statehood centennial celebrations in 2007, is to find trees that were around when Oklahoma became a state and those that were the first planted by settlers.

An example is a bur oak that stands on the north bank of the Oklahoma (North Canadian) River east of where the Native American Cultural Center will be built. Core sampling found it has stood for almost 200 years, long enough to ``witness'' the coming of Indian tribes, settlers, railroads and a city.

``Just think of what that tree has seen,'' said David Yost, a developer and member of the Tree Bank's board of directors.

Despite its vast western plains, Oklahoma is a great place for trees and those who appreciate them, naturalists say. A wide swath in the eastern and central part of the state was once covered with the ``Crosstimbers,'' a dense barrier of blackjack and post oak. Remnants of this ancient forest can be found, with some trees 400 years old.

Also, Oklahoma's diverse climate and terrain mean it has a wider variety of trees than most states, said Tom Smith, state forester for southeastern Oklahoma. Although southeastern Oklahoma has been heavily logged for timber for 150 years, he said, its frequent rainfall, soil and climate give it one of the most diverse assortments of trees in the country.

More than one-third of the state's champion trees, including the state's largest-known tree, a bald cypress that's about 1,000 years old, can be found in McCurtain County.

Oklahoma used to have some national champions, trees that were the largest known of their kind in America, said Robert McCord, a state forester in Tahlequah who keeps track of Oklahoma's champs. Oklahoma once had the national champion western soapberry, blackjack and red mulberry.

However, the mulberry was dethroned when a larger one was discovered, and the blackjack died, McCord said. And the soapberry? ``It was on a creek bank, and it got washed away.''

So, Oklahoma has no national champs, McCord said, although ``there's a strong possibility we've got some. It would be nice to actually find some.''

Several species have no Oklahoma state champion, meaning none have been found in this state, the Ozark chinkapin, for one. McCord said a friend at his church mentioned he might have a chinkapin on his property. But the next Sunday, the man told McCord his son had ``cut it for firewood.''

Trees can be magnificent, but there is more to these monsters of vegetation than size, beauty and history.

Studies have shown that, for whatever reason, trees seem to have a calming effect on neighborhoods, resulting in less violence, urban forester Bays said. Also, trees and other greenery seem to have a healing effect on the body as well as the soul, with surgical patients recovering more quickly if they have a view of greenery, Bays said.

Besides, as Lewis Stiles can tell you, a tree can be a friend. One you can lean on.
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