Most Mississippi residents would probably give a puzzled look if asked about their local Tree Board. But Oxford’s council of tree preservers help transform the city.
“Oxford’s trees provide a vivid, yet subtle sense of place,” said Oxford Tree Board Co-Chairman Hume Bryant.
Besides keeping the city full of foliage, Oxford Tree Board leaders advise the Oxford Planning Department and Oxford Board of Alderman about tree planting and growth.
“It is not wise to plant canopy trees under utility lines,” said Bryant. “Rather, small trees or large shrubs are recommended. Also, trees planted on the south and west sides of a house provide more benefits than if planted on the north and east sides. This can have a major impact on cooling cost in this part of the South.”
The realization that Oxford’s trees needed conservation “happened slowly over the course of a number of years,” Bryant said. “When growth was running at a snail’s pace, there was little cause for concern. However, beginning 15 or so years ago, this changed, and changed dramatically.
“We started losing 100 plus acres of canopy annually, and we (the Tree Board) undertook the task of providing the community with facts, spelling out the cost of these changes to Oxford. With the support of the community, we were able to enact tree mitigation ordinances that have become part of Oxford’s codes.”
Bryant joked that areas of Oxford without many trees or shrubs “look like Kroger’s lot,” and then clarified, “That lot is on notice that it needs to come into compliance with the ordinance or face fines.”
The other Tree Board co-chairman is Cowan Hunter, who started working for the board “around ’99 or 2000.” He is dedicated to keeping the trees protected because, beyond providing shade and filtering the air, they are part of the city’s stormwater protection.
“If we didn’t have all the trees we have, considering the rainfall we have, we would have to put in millions more into stormwater infrastructure,” Hunter said, adding that tree roots ground the soil to prevent erosion and runoff, and they also store water.
Hunter said many believe the Tree Board is about beautification. That’s true, but it’s also about economics. Many people love Oxford because of its landscape.
“When people think about coming to Oxford, they think about what those trees look like on Lamar, and those big homes and the big trees,” he said. “Oxford’s also entangled with the university, and the school does a good job of keeping up with the trees there. When people think of the campus and how beautiful it is, they are also thinking about the town.”
Hunter said the Tree Board aims to influence development decisions in Oxford. “We don’t want to lose things about the town that people come here for,” he said.
The Circle at Ole Miss. Photo by Ash Crantas.
Hunter said locals are invested in the Southern aesthetic, and when well-known trees had to be cut in the past, the Oxford Board of Alderman learned they had a large constituency who wanted to know why.
He said cutting a tree by the William Faulkner statue near City Hall became controversial. “They had to cut down a magnolia that had been there for a while,” Hunter said. “Faulkner might have been appalled that they cut down a perfectly good tree to put in a statue of him.”
Hunter said there have also been studies conducted that indicate trees make people feel better. “Looking out the window and seeing trees, it’s better than the side of the next building,” he said. Indeed, scientific reports have researched the mental health benefits of nature-filled living areas.
There are some popular Oxford areas where the Tree Board wants to plant trees, such as the Square and Jackson Avenue. Hunter said logistically, “The Square is a problematic place because it has a lot of underground infrastructure, pipes and conduits,” he said. “We can’t just dig up a site and plant a tree, so we have some planters,” which will allow for individual saplings to grow above ground.
Hunter said anytime something new is built, the Tree Board looks to see if there’s an opportunity to plant trees. A recent example, is the parking garage that will be constructed near the Square.
“The city requires developers to do mitigation, so if you have a business site, and you have to cut down a bunch of trees to put in that complex, you have to show where you’re gonna replant trees,” he said.
If the foliage cannot be adequately replenished, Hunter said constructors can donate money to an escrow fund, and that money is used to “plant trees in other places around town, places that don’t currently have trees.”
The Oxford Tree Board also utilizes grant funding from the state to do a tree inventory on public property. The inventory shows where the trees are and includes an assessment. “We have a tool that tells us to look at these trees because they’re hazardous,” he said.
Hunter said the Oxford Tree Board has not had an easy bureaucratic history, but leaders are making progress. “We have a voice that is heard by the board of alderman and other political leaders,” he said. He said Oxford Tree Board leaders volunteer, do outreach programs and talk to groups.