The stately live oak tree next to the old A.J. Moore High School tennis court on Jefferson Avenue has survived prairie fires, droughts, settlements of Waco Indians and pioneers, a tornado and the bulldozers of urban renewal.
But the tree may not survive Waco Independent School District’s plans for a middle school track and practice field.
A conceptual plan for the athletics complex for Indian Spring Middle School shows turf where the tree now spreads its enormous branches. A mature pecan tree nearby also would have to go.
WISD Superintendent Bonnie Cain said the school district tried to minimize the impact on trees on the site, but it couldn’t save them all.
“If that’s where the track’s going to be, then we’re going to be tearing them down,” she said.
The tree is among a grove of oaks at the corner of Jefferson Avenue and University Parks Drive that are likely hundreds of years old, said Baylor biology professor Joseph White, an expert on forest ecology who has experience in tree dating.
White measured the tree’s trunk Monday as being 133 inches in circumference and 49 inches in diameter.
Based on core samples of live oaks from Cameron Park, he estimated that the tree could be more than 500 years old, though other tree experts caution that live oaks are difficult to date.
White said the tree is a rare witness to Waco’s prehistory, and it should be preserved.
“I think a place that cares about its natural heritage cares about more than just building things,” he said. “Trees create a place. They become the historians of a place.”
Cain said the school district has a policy of preserving trees when possible, but in this case there is nowhere else to put the track and field.
“I think everyone’s aware that Waco is blessed with trees, and we respect them,” she said.
The proposed field sits on a 14-acre tract WISD owns, but it is bisected by a buried drainage tunnel, and the district doesn’t want to build on top of the tunnel.
A section of that tunnel rusted through and collapsed several years ago, and while the rest of the tunnel is not a hazard, building a sports facility on top of it would be a bad idea, city engineer Mark Hines said.
Baylor’s White said the school district should try to find a way to accommodate youth sports without sacrificing ancient trees.
“What do you teach a student of a middle school when building a football field takes over preserving our natural heritage?” White said.
“The Waco community has to value its natural resources as much as its historic resources.”
The tree is by no means the biggest in McLennan County.
Records from a now-discontinued countywide tree registry showed that in 2000, the biggest live oaks were one in Elm Mott with a 231-inch circumference, and one in China Spring with a 228-inch circumference.
Pete Smith, big tree registry coordinator for the Texas A&M Forest Service, formerly the Texas Forest Service, said the oak wouldn’t qualify for the state’s big tree registry.
He said the 500-year-old estimate sounds high, and questioned the reference trees White used to estimate the oak’s age, noting that they were in a rocky area of Cameron Park.
But he said none of that diminishes the tree’s value.
“Locally, it may still be an important tree and may be an ancient tree,” he said. “I hate to see any big tree lost to construction. . . . One hundred years in Texas history is a really long time. If you look at cities, those really old trees that predate our civilization here are real landmarks.”
Smith said several Texas cities have tree preservation ordinances, but overall, that cause lags behind the preservation of old buildings.
“We’ve become very good at preserving structures, but landscapes and trees are much tougher,” he said.
He noted that League City this summer moved a 500-ton oak a quarter mile to keep it from being destroyed by a road widening. But often there are no easy answers when trees and development compete.
“It’s a common issue, and navigating it so that everybody feels like they’ve won is rare,” Smith said.