SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — Across from a paved lot where the Port of Savannah stacks empty cargo containers stands a living link to the time before Georgia's first settlers arrived — an ancient live oak tree more than 7 ½ feet in diameter with massive branches extending up to 70 feet from its trunk.
One expert estimates the giant oak and another roughly the same size less than a mile away are more than 360 years old. That would mean they took root at least 80 years before Gen. James Edward Oglethorpe arrived in 1733 and founded Georgia as the 13th British colony.
On Friday, celebrated nationally as Arbor Day, officials from the Georgia Ports Authority made a formal promise to protect and preserve the pair of ancient live oaks — and 24 of their younger cousins — from the rapid development and growth that's made Savannah the fourth busiest container port in the U.S.
"These trees and others on our land are not going to be destroyed," said Curtis Foltz, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority. "We're going to be sure our business protects and respects them."
The decision means roughly 9 acres of land is being spared from development at the port's 1,200-acre Garden City Terminal, which handled just shy of 3 million containers of imports and exports last year.
Many of the younger live oaks were planted when the land was part of Whitehall Plantation, a rice plantation started in the late 18th century. The state purchased the land for the Savannah port in 1960.
Port officials hired an arborist, Shannon Baughman, to estimate the age of the oldest oaks and devise a plan for preserving them.
Baughman said there's no way to tell the trees' ages for sure. Even taking a core sample from the truck that would allow the oaks' rings to be counted would be pointless, he said, because in some cases live oaks are capable of growing two new rings in a single year.
Baughman said he consulted other foresters in coming up with a formula that assumes a live oak in coastal Georgia's climate will grow one inch in radius every eight years. Two live oaks on the port property have a trunk radius exceeding 45 inches.
"These are certainly hidden gems within the city of Savannah," Baughman said. "I never come across trees this size."
Experts say it's rare to find live oaks on the Atlantic coast older than 250 years, though it's possible for some to reach age 500.
According to the Savannah Tree Foundation, a tree known as the Majestic Oak in one of the city's south-side neighborhoods is believed to be 300 to 500 years old. Its trunk exceeds 8 ½ feet in diameter.
Karen Jenkins, the foundation's executive director, said that while Savannah is known for its abundance of live oaks draped in Spanish moss, there's no census count of how many are two or even three centuries old. She also noted there are no laws preventing private property owners from cutting down even the oldest trees.
Baughman said his firm has spent the past year working to give the Savannah port's oldest live oaks their best chance of survival. Thick vines than hung to the ground and covered their leaves — making photosynthesis more difficult — were trimmed back and some dead limbs were pruned.
Mulch was spread over the soil to help contain moisture and keep competing plants from growing. And a copper wire was run from the top of the trees to a grounding rod 2 feet underground to protect them from lightning.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.