Some might have viewed it as an obstacle to progress, but for others, a historic oak tree that towered over the community of Helena was an irreplaceable historic treasure that met a sad and sudden end.
Ashley Espinoza and her family are among those who are mourning the loss of the tree at the intersection of Highways 80 and 81, which she said contractors working for the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) cut down without warning on Feb. 2.
“I’m not exactly sure how old that tree was, but I’d guess it was at least 150 to 200 years old,” Espinoza said. “My husband is 6-foot-3 and I’m 5-foot-11, and we couldn’t hold hands if we both wrapped our arms around the tree. It was huge and such a wonderful part of our community history. We were not notified that the tree would be cut down, and we are devastated.”
The tree was on her family’s property, but was within an area which is also considered to be state right-of-way based on its proximity to the nearby highways.
“That tree was important to my family and they cut it to pieces,” Espinoza said. “My children played in that tree and when he was a kid my husband played in that tree. Now it’s gone, and for what? A right turn lane for trucks? I think there were other things that could have been done which would have protected the tree, but the easier thing for TxDOT to do was to just cut it down. We didn’t even have an opportunity to get a picture of the tree to put in our local museum or for a family keepsake.
“Everyone who I’ve talked to in the community is devastated. That tree had been here for as long as anybody can remember. A lot of people called and asked us if we knew they were cutting down the tree. I was at a doctor’s appointment in Pleasanton and it had already been cut to pieces by the time I was able to get back home.”
She was able to get a partial picture of the tree, but said the lack of notification added insult to injury.
“I am very upset they came in and cut it down without giving us any notice. We could have had a milling company come out and salvage part of the oak. It would have been nice to be able to preserve part of the tree and get a good picture of it, but we didn’t even have that opportunity. The tree was so big that they had to cut half of it down and then cut the other half.”
Espinoza said she has been in contact with Nick Novosad, the area engineer for TxDOT and his supervisor, Valente Olivarez, and that they didn’t immediately return phone calls.
Although the tree has been removed from its longtime location, Espinoa is hoping to at least have some good come about as a result.
“First, if anyone else is upset about this I would like them to go to the TxDOT website (TxDOT.gov) under TxDOT watch and file a formal complaint. I urge anyone who is outraged by the destruction of the tree to do this, so we can at least make ourselves heard.
“I am also going to attempt to have them replace the inches of the tree in our community somewhere that it won’t be in the TxDOT right-of-way. Maybe when my 4-month-old daughter has grandkids, we can have a huge oak tree on our property to replace the one that was taken from us. I am seeking replacement like for like and inch for inch of the one that was destroyed.”
Ezpinoza said she is also seeking to rally concerned citizens, community leaders and elected officials to her cause.
“I feel like they have not done our community justice,” she said. “Helena was the county seat a long time ago and this tree was here during that time. It was an important part of our history.
“The county judge (Wade Hedtke) came out and he was pretty upset about what happened, but he said technically they didn’t have to notify us, but I don’t think what TxDOT did was right. They think they can just come into a small community and do whatever they want.”
About a year before the tree was cut down, Espinoza said that Novosad talked to her husband and said there was a possibility that the tree might have to be cut, but that the family would be notified before action was taken.
“The next thing we know, the tree was cut down and no one told us that it would be happening. It may be a longshot for me to get anything done at this point, but I have to at least try. We can’t ever get the tree back, but we can let them know this isn’t right and try to get them to plant something else. It won’t replace what we lost, but maybe something good can be salvaged.”