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Georgians Go out on A Limb to Save a Tree

To some, ancient oak is historical; to Georgia officials, it's history

IT'S 300 years old, it has sheltered native Americans and Spanish-American War soldiers, and now it's putting Albany, Ga., on the map.

The Friendship Oak, six feet in diameter with thick gnarled limbs that spread out like octopus tentacles, is the main topic of conversation in this southwest Georgia city where many majestic old oaks and palm trees pepper the landscape.

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Smack-dab in a tiny plot of land in the middle of a three-way intersection, the oak is the object of a court battle that pits the Georgia Department of Transportation against a host of residents.

At issue is the tree's survival.

The transportation department says it has to come down as part of a road-widening project that would ease traffic congestion. Arbor supporters contend the tree is a historic landmark that shouldn't be touched by a chain saw. And they're doing everything from gathering signatures to sleeping in the tree's branches in order to get their point across.

In a red-clay parking lot across the street from the tree, advocates have set up a tent, complete with plastic lawn chairs and a smoldering campfire, where they keep watch over the oak in shifts.

Tim Wilson, a cafeteria worker who is putting in his time guarding what has become a kind of command center, says what many here echo: "I'm not opposed to roads, but this tree should be saved because of its place in history."

The tree was dubbed the Friendship Oak because it stood in the center of an army camp for soldiers who were discharged from the Spanish-American War.

The tree was also the site under which native Americans conducted religious rites and a meeting place for people during the floods of 1994, Mr. Wilson says. Its age is estimated at between 300 and 350 years.

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So far, supporters have gathered about 40,000 signatures to save the tree. People come from Albany and even surrounding states to sign petitions, take pictures and buy stickers.

"It's something nature has bestowed upon us, and we should honor it," says Gudrun Mills, a well-dressed woman from Fitzgerald, Ga., who has stopped by to see the tree, which is festooned with strings of lights, yellow ribbons, an American flag, and a yellow flag that says "Don't tread on me."

The campaign to save the tree started about three years ago but has heightened in the last few months. Several times it almost was cut down, but tree advocates, who went to court, won a temporary stay of execution.

The decision is now in the hands of a federal judge who will consider if the leafy oak's history may make it eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, which would save it from the chopping block.

Supporters want the transportation department to find a way of going around the tree. But the department says it has no option because county commissioners didn't want to spend the extra money several years ago to fund an alternate plan. It also says the tree isn't eligible for historic preservation. If the judge decides in the department's favor, the tree will come down immediately.

Though many here favor leaving the tree standing, some berate the supporters. "They're just a bunch of hippie tree-huggers," one man spouts off.

"We're not nuts; we're not radicals. We just feel the rights of the small man are being trampled on," Wilson says in defense of the 20 or so "diehard" defenders.

Across the intersection at Fred's Bait and Tackle Shop, owner Fred Abernathy stands in front of a sign that lists prices for red and yellow wigglers.

"I support what they're doing, but I myself would not stay in the tree," Mr. Abernathy says. "One boy climbed in the tree and spent two nights there."

Their tactics are "more just something to try and draw you in so they can get more attention," he adds.

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