It seems fitting in January, the month of Florida’s state Arbor Day, to look back on the recent history of something we see everyday in Northwest Florida: trees. It seems timely, too, with the influx of RESTORE Act funds into Escambia County approaching, to recognize the role environmental advocacy has had in preserving beautiful things we all enjoy, improving quality of life in Pensacola as a result.
Florida has celebrated Arbor Day, which originated in Nebraska in 1872, since 1886. At that time, the lumber industry in Northwest Florida was booming. Trees and the products they provided brought wealth and prosperity to Pensacola, and gave rise to towns throughout the surrounding region in the late 1800s.
In 1887, while local schoolchildren helped plant trees in the city of Pensacola during Arbor Day festivities, hundreds were being felled nearby (one of four trees planted that year in memory of “late lamented gentlemen” was dedicated to Daniel Sullivan, a local lumber baron who—random tidbit—also has one of the tallest monuments in St. Michael’s Cemetery). The supply of trees must have seemed endless, as replanting was not practiced nor, in the days before regulations of any kind, was it required.
With little forethought applied, by World War I, the lumber industry in Northwest Florida had nearly obliterated itself. Replanting programs began in the 1920s, but the supply of the large sometimes centuries old trees had been exhausted.
As forestry practices improved, a new frontier in tree-related concerns emerged: tree v. road/parking lot/strip mall. In the second half of the 20th century, the largely unanticipated realities of physical growth and roadway expansions surprised many, and had many demanding greater protection for trees.
One of the first major protests against proposed road plans came with the widening of Cervantes Street in the late 1960s, first from Pace Boulevard to Palafox Street, then Ninth to 15th avenues. It wasn’t until work was underway that the public realized dozens of large oaks, many estimated to be over 100 years old, would have to be cleared to accommodate a four-lane road.
The Pensacola Historical Commission protested the removal of the trees given their historical and aesthetic value. Their efforts brought officials from state and federal agencies to review the project, but after a month, all parties acknowledged the work was so far along, there was little to do but take the State Road Department, who promised to work around trees where possible, at their word.
In 1971, large oaks at Ninth Avenue and Blount streets were cleared to make way for commercial development, again creating a protest that reportedly made the City Council consider setting guidelines. No ordinance was passed, however, and six years later, in the spring of 1977, the controversy surrounding the “Alcaniz Oak” incited concern and protest from Pensacolians once again.
The construction of I-110 spur (planned in 1968) was underway and moving toward downtown in early 1977. The “Alcaniz Oak,” which stood approximately five stories tall, with a diameter of five feet, was in the right of way at Alcaniz and Gregory streets. As its impending demise became evident, protestors held sit-ins and vigils beneath the tree. As cutting efforts began, some protestors moved onto its branches to prevent crews from beginning removal, with the stated purpose of raising awareness about the need for a tree ordinance.
The activism and organization of environmental groups concerned with the loss of the Alcaniz Oak, which was cut in June 1977, finally resulted in a city tree ordinance in 1978. Escambia County followed suite in 1985.
Though some have criticized the stringency of both local laws, tree news improved from the late 1980s forward, with many large trees being preserved and incorporated into proposed designs. Even with state and federal laws in place for environmental protection, however, advocacy is still the responsibility of the public, and a tradition it seems in Northwest Florida.
Jessica is a Pensacola resident with a Master’s degree in Public History. When she’s not digging up history facts, you can find her doing production support at a local architecture firm.