Massive oak will be casualty of 'progress' on Highway 26
Mary Ann Buenzow has been trying to write an obituary for the stately bur oak for months, but she can't put the words on paper.
Maybe because it's too painful to think about the 150-year-old tree no longer standing along Highway 26.
Some day this spring, people with saws will come to slash the mighty trunk. They will fell the tree to make room for the highway expansion north of Milton to Fort Atkinson.
The trunk measures 13 feet around and supports a stack of stretching limbs. When the work is finished, the heavy corpse will lie broken on the ground, where it has offered shade since long before the age of the automobile.
"I understand it is progress in some people's eyes," Buenzow said. "We all want to drive safely from point A to point B."
The Janesville woman has been a forester for 29 years and does not want to give the impression that she thinks cutting all trees is bad. She knows that thinning trees in a forest opens space for new life to grow. She also knows that harvesting trees provides wood for many purposes.
But this tree, with its wide-open crown and elegant symmetry of branches, is about as perfect a tree as nature ever made. This tree might have tickled the bellies of Ho-Chunk horses. This tree somehow survived the ax and dodged the farmer's plow time and time again.
Buenzow researched surveyor records from the 19th century. They describe a young forest in the area where the spreading giant now graces the landscape.
"It is possible that it was a young tree at that time," she said.
For more than 25 years, Buenzow has admired the towering oak with a massive crown of almost 100 feet. She is not the only one who has noticed its beauty. People have pulled off the road to photograph its grand presence, paint its deep-ridged bark and sketch its lovely leaves.
"I can't tell you how many times I've had a conversation about that tree," Buenzow said. "Everywhere I go, people want to talk about trees, and that one often comes up."
When she realized the tree was slated for destruction, she began thinking about having it moved. Yes, moved. She was inspired by a video on YouTube from a Texas city that used heavy equipment to relocate a 260-ton oak rather than cut it down
"I looked into what the cost would be," Buenzow said. "They guessed it could be at least $200,000."
She emailed the Wisconsin Department of Transportation and learned she would have to meet stringent requirements about liability coverage, as well.
"Everything began feeling pretty insurmountable," Buenzow said. "And the tree may or may not survive such a move."
She is not the only one who has tried to give the enduring oak another spring.
"We have talked to several people about the tree," said Mark Vesperman, project manager with the transportation department. "They asked if we could move the road to avoid the tree."
But moving the highway created other problems.
"We looked into the possibility," Vesperman said. "But if we moved the road, it impacted more trees, wetlands and more agricultural land."
The Jefferson County Parks Department has requested a slab of the trunk, possibly to put along the bike trail that parallels Highway 26 north from the Rock County line.
"It is still uncertain how we will use it," said Joe Nehmer of the parks department. "But we don't want to miss out on the opportunity to have part of this magnificent tree."
Buenzow has lovingly taken the tree's dimensions and recorded them. She has thought about the number of times she admired the tree through the changing seasons. She has wondered how to pay tribute to a doomed friend.
She also is reminded of a quote she heard: "Trees are much bigger than us—and more forgiving."
"Somehow, I think this tree will pass with the same gentle dignity with which it lived," Buenzow said. "We can all learn from that."
Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.