Huge East Point oaks a tough fight for preservationists

The Connally oaks finally may get the showcase that many of their fans say they deserve.

The stand of old trees, surrounded by other species in a nearly 30-acre urban forest in the heart of East Point, usually goes unnoticed. Currently not even an identification sign exists.

But for the tree community, the oaks represent one of toughest preservation fights in metro Atlanta arbor history. One of the trees is recognized by Trees Atlanta as the largest white oak inside I-285. But it’s the number of large oaks that make the stand unusual.

“They were huge trees and I was enamored,” said Greg Levine, chief program officer for Trees Atlanta, about his first visit to the site 12 years ago. “I would go down the trail and I would see one after another and I was mesmerized.”

Now East Point plans to seek a $100,000 state grant to develop the Connally Nature Park to make it more accessible to the public and clear out invasive plants, such as English ivy, that threaten to choke the oaks.

The trees are estimated to be well over 150 years old, though some of their fans claim they are much older.

“We want to preserve the trees,” said Seigfried Jones, director of parks and recreation at East Point.

Right now a roped path guides the occasional visitor past the oaks, in hopes of keeping foot traffic from trampling the ground over the roots and harming the trees. Jones said he would like to add a boardwalk but if the city gets the grant, the first order of business will be attacking the invasive kudzu, ivy and privet, hiring an arborist, and, of course, erecting a sign.

The land didn’t start out as a nature park. The Connally family owned the property from 1814 until it deeded it to the city in 1991. At first, East Point wanted to turn the area into a softball complex, despite the fact that, according to a Trees Atlanta document, core samples taken from the trees by an Emory University professor in 1974 had determined that some were 250 years old.

In 1999, the city sold the land to the Fulton County Board of Education for an elementary school, only to run up against a juggernaut of environmental groups that filed two lawsuits to stop the development. Eventually East Point bought back the land to create a nature park.

“It was by far the biggest fight that Trees Atlanta has ever been involved in,” said Levine, who lists the white oak as his favorite tree.

The fight helped spawn a few legends. News stories at the time referred to the trees as 300-year-old virgin forest, a claim that Ed Macie, regional urban forester for the U.S. Forest Service, says should be viewed skeptically. For one thing, it wasn’t virgin forest; it was once a plantation. The grid-pattern of the oaks suggests they were planted in the 1800s, perhaps as shade trees, although they could have been what remained of an oak forest that had been logged.

An assessment done by a field ecologist for Green South Fulton during the fight with the school board concluded that some of the largest specimens appeared to be the remnants of the original forest and could possibly be more than 200 years old. But Macie noted that tree age gets exaggerated, especially during fights to save them.

Trees Atlanta until recently even listed one Connally white oak as a state champion — the largest recorded of its species as measured by circumference, height and crown — with its 16-foot circumference, 109-foot height and 114-foot crown. But Eli Dickerson, who now does much of the measuring for the organization, said if that was the case in the 1990s, it has since been overtaken.

Measured by an arithmetic point system that combines several components, an 81-foot white oak in Fayetteville scored 379 points in 2009 and shares the state champion ranking with another one in Wrightsville.

Macie said championship points aren’t what makes the Connally oaks worth protecting. He first saw them two decades ago when he was an arborist for Fulton County and said they were spectacular specimens. But it was the number that made them so unusual and worth showcasing.

“I don’t think you will find a stand of white oaks like that, at least I can’t think of one that comes to mind,” he said. “Stands like that are around but they are very uncommon.”