Auburn’s iconic oaks attacked again

Posted at 7:10 AM, Sep 27, 2016

Auburn University’s revered oak trees can’t catch a break.

The trees, which are as much a part of the east Alabama school’s tradition as they are the landscape, were poisoned by an Alabama Crimson Tide fan in 2010 and replaced last year. Early Sunday, one of the replacement trees was torched after Auburn’s upset victory at home over the LSU Tigers.

Following wins by their sports teams, Auburn fans converge downtown at Toomer’s Corner — so named for the 120-year-old drugstore that sits catercorner from the oaks — and gleefully toss toilet paper into the trees’ sprawling branches.

About 12:15 a.m. Sunday, just hours after the LSU win, a man lit the dangling toilet paper ablaze, according to reports. It quickly consumed the top of the tree.

Auburn police could not be reached for comment, but the APD submitted a statement to the local newspaper.

“Witnesses at Toomer’s Corner identified a suspect, who was immediately detained and taken into custody by police on an unrelated charge of public intoxication,” the statement in the Opelika-Auburn News said. “He was transported to the Lee County Detention Center, where he is being held on a $500 bond.”

Additional charges are anticipated, the statement said.

A woman answering the phone at the Lee County Jail said the man accused of the crime, 29-year-old Jochen Wiest, remained in custody as of early Monday afternoon. She did not know whether additional charges were filed or whether his bail amount had been increased.

The Opelika newspaper reported Wiest was charged with desecration of a venerable object and his bail was upped to $1,000. It’s not clear whether Wiest has retained a lawyer.

The fire left the tree’s bough scorched and its leaves curled and brown, Auburn University horticulture professor Gary Keever said.

“From the ground, we can easily see damage to the leaves and base of the tree. It is significant,” Keever said in a statement. “I expect the foliage will continue to drop. The full extent of damage may not be known for several weeks. The best-case scenario would be to see a flush of new growth next spring, but right now it’s too early to tell how the tree will respond.”

Keever will use a lift to inspect the tree’s canopy more closely this week, the school said.

“I don’t think the fire killed the tree, but we may never see it return to its appearance before this act,” Keever said.

Landscape crews will also need to replace the irrigation pipes used to water the trees. They melted in the fire, the university said.

Auburn University is asking students and fans to refrain from rolling the damaged oak, which fronts Magnolia Avenue, until the extent of the damage can be assessed. Fans are free to toss toilet paper into the limbs of the other oak along College Street, the school said.

Auburn fans only recently got back to the ritual of rolling the oaks after football games. The trees were poisoned in 2010 by Harvey Updyke, a self-professed fan of Auburn’s rival, the Alabama Crimson Tide. He was arrested after calling a Birmingham radio talk show to boast of his deed, which he perpetrated after Auburn overcame a huge deficit to beat Alabama in the annual Iron Bowl.

In 2013, Updyke pleaded guilty to poisoning the oaks and was sentenced to serve at least six months of a three-year sentence for criminal damage to an agricultural facility, a felony, Lee County District Attorney Robbie Treese said at the time.

The following month, Auburn conceded that its bid to save the trees had failed and cut down the iconic oaks, which were more than 130 years old.

New trees were planted last year, but the university asked fans to wait before decorating them in toilet paper. Fans learned last month the custom would continue this fall.

“This is a tremendous day for the Auburn Family and for all sports fans across the country who love the fall and football,” Ron Booth, executive director of facility operations said in an August news release. “Our hope has been to reinstate rolling this season, and, now, we can make that announcement.”

The LSU victory marked the second time this season the trees had been rolled, the first coming after Auburn’s September 10 win over Arkansas State.