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Carl Wernicke: Lost Live Oaks & Something More

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As the recent front-page article in the Pensacola News Journal shows, I’m not the only person taken aback by the surprise tree massacre at the I-10/Scenic Highway intersection.

State officials say they had good reason to eviscerate the stand of live oaks, but I share with many others the question of whether a little planning couldn’t have saved some of them. State officials somewhat defensively point out that they held public hearings on the plan, and no doubt not that many of us attended. Although, I have a suspicion that had they said oh, by the way, we are going to take a chainsaw to every live oak within eyesight, someone would have taken notice.

If nothing else it shows how the world has been turned upside down: today, Escambia County government seems downright progressive compared to the state, when it used to be the exact opposite.

In that vein, I congratulate county officials for offering to help pay for new trees to replace the ones that got cut down. And maybe in 40 or 50 years they will be roughly the same size.

No, I don’t know how old those trees were, but some of them had to be more than 40 years old. I say that because I was there in 1968 when they held a ribbon cutting to open the Bridge over Escambia Bay, extending I-10’s march toward connecting the east coast to the west by an unbroken stretch of concrete. A year later my parents sold our house as part of the development of University Mall, which sprang up to take advantage of the new I-10, which, when it opened to automobile traffic, deprived us of the best bicycle path you have ever seen in your life.

Anyway, I was 15 when the ceremony took place, and I was thrilled at the chance to see Claude Kirk, the governor of Florida. Obviously I was at that stage not yet the grizzled, cynical newspaper hack I was to become, and in that pre-internet age seeing politicians was still a thrill.

And in fact I was almost delirious when I found myself at the very front of the roped-off crowd as Gov. Kirk came down the line, shaking hands. I boldly stuck my hand out, and started to say something reverential. Kirk grabbed my hand, gave it a mechanical shake, and moved on. He hadn’t even looked at me, depriving me of the chance to feel validated by an important man. I realized the handshake was a perfunctory gesture, with no more meaning than a cheap promotion at the 5&10 store.

This was, to my young self, a profound disillusionment, but also a thunderous revelation. It sparked a glimmer of thought in my callow mind that perhaps the world was not as I had imagined it. It’s a necessary lesson, hopefully one we all absorb at some point.

And while I don’t specifically remember, I assume that some, maybe most, of those oaks were standing there at the time.

Anyway, if there is any lesson to be learned from all this, it is always go to the public hearings, especially if it’s put on by DOT. There’s no telling what horrors might be averted if we do. 

Carl Wernicke is a native of Pensacola. He graduated from the University of Florida in 1975 with a degree in journalism. After 33 years as a reporter and editor, he retired from the Pensacola News Journal in April 2012; he spent the last 15 years at the PNJ as editor of the editorial page. He joined the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition in 2012 as Senior Writer and Communications Manager, and retired from IHMC in 2015.His hobbies include reading, traveling, gardening, hiking, enjoying nature around his home in Downtown Pensacola, as well as watching baseball and college football, especially the Florida Gators and New York Yankees. His wife, Patti, retired as a senior vice president at Gulf Winds Federal Credit Union and is a Master Gardener. Carl is a regular contributor to WUWF. His commentaries focus on life in and around the Pensacola area and range in subject matter from birding to downtown redevelopment and from preserving our natural heritage to life in local neighborhoods.