Locals react to tree poisoning

Published 12:40 pm Thursday, February 17, 2011

Auburn fans roll the trees at Toomer's Corner with toilet paper following a Tigers football win.

The roots of the oak trees at Toomer’s Corner in Auburn run deep…at least all the way to Chilton County.

Like their counterparts across the world, local Auburn fans were grieved to learn the trees, which are rolled with toilet paper to celebrate wins by Tigers athletic teams and other milestones, had been poisoned and are unlikely to survive.

Harvey Almorn Updyke, 62, of Dadeville was arrested Wednesday night in connection with the act and charged with criminal mischief first degree, a Class C felony that would carry a prison sentence of one to 10 years.

A caller to the Paul Finebaum Radio Network, a popular program for college football enthusiasts, on Jan. 27 said he poisoned the trees the weekend after Auburn’s football team defeated Alabama, 28-27, on its way to a national championship.

The caller identified himself as “Al from Dadeville” and said he poisoned the trees with Spike 80DF, which was indeed detected in the soil around the trees.

Al from Dadeville concluded his call with “Roll Damn Tide” but first assured Finebaum the trees would die, a prognosis that appears accurate.

Jim Pitts, director of the Auburn affiliated Chilton Research and Extension Center, said Spike has been used by railroad companies to kill vegetation along railways or by farmers to clean fence lines.

The product is potent, requiring a permit to purchase.

“It just kills anything. It’s absorbed into a tree or plant, and once it gets in—to back it up is just impossible,” said Pitts, who graduated from AU in 1980. “If the levels are as high as they say, it looks like it just may be a done deal. It looks like it’s just tremendously high.”

In tests of the soil near the trees conducted by the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries, the lowest amount of herbicide detected in a sample was 0.78 parts per million, which has been described as a “very lethal dose”—quantities are usually measured in parts per billion. The highest amount detected was 51 parts per million, or 65 times the lowest dose.

To commemorate the trees, Auburn fans rolled Toomer’s Corner Wednesday night after finding out about the poisoning. In the crowd were Amanda Bates and Tiffany Ostertag, two daughters of Charles Bates, president of the Chilton Auburn Club.

Charles Bates first rolled Toomer’s Corner in the early 1970s, when he was in high school. Fans unable to attend away games would celebrate Auburn wins at the corner of College Street and Magnolia Avenue.

“My kids grew up doing it—we all did,” Charles Bates said. “It’s sad where somebody thinks they’ve got to kill something because they lose a football game. If you’re not an Auburn fan, you just don’t understand the tradition. It’s just part of being an Auburn fan.”

Bates said he hopes Auburn fans don’t retaliate, and Alabama Athletic Director Mal Moore has joined his Auburn counterpart, Jay Jacobs, in condemning the act.

“We’re all sick about it,” Pitts said. “It’s not so much we’re looking at a school (that is responsible) but just an individual. The school wouldn’t do this for anything in the world.”

Pitts said the effects of the poison could likely be seen by the beginning of summer, as the trees would usually begin producing new growth.

Auburn officials are attempting to save the trees, including applying activated charcoal to the soil under the trees to soak up the poison.

The situation is worsened by the trees being more than 100 years old and located in a heavily trafficked area. Pitts said they were likely nearing the end of their life span anyway.

And the tradition of rolling the trees was harmful because of the clean-up process required. If the radio show caller is to be believed, Toomer’s Corner has been rolled twice since the poisoning, meaning crews have washed off the toilet paper, likely quickening the spread of the poison in the soil.

“It’s unfortunate, it really is,” Pitts said. “These trees have been here a long, long time. The rivalry a lot of times just goes too far.”