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Navy Works to Protect Centuries-old Oak Tree on Norfolk Naval Station

In this May 3, 2004 file photo, security personnel wait to inspect vehicles entering Norfolk Naval Station in Norfolk, Va. (AP Photo/The Virginian-Pilot, Mort Fryman)
In this May 3, 2004 file photo, security personnel wait to inspect vehicles entering Norfolk Naval Station in Norfolk, Va. (AP Photo/The Virginian-Pilot, Mort Fryman)

NORFOLK — Security is always a top priority on the world's largest naval base — even for a tree.

One of the largest recorded oak trees in Virginia is tucked away in an empty grass field near the edge of Norfolk Naval Station near Willoughby Bay, surrounded by an 8-foot black wrought iron fence to protect it from anyone who might do it harm.

Nobody knows exactly how old the tree is, but estimates range from 400 to 600 years because it was on farmland owned by Thomas Willoughby, who came to Virginia in 1610. The only way to tell the tree's age for sure would be to bore a hole into it or cut it down.

The Navy is more interested in protecting the Willoughby Live Oak, though. The sprawling, 48-foot-tall tree has more than 300 points on it, according to a 2015 measure by the Norfolk Master Gardener Volunteer Significant Tree Program.

"We care about the tree's longevity," said Thomas Olexa, the base's natural resource manager. "This tree is so unique because of the age of the tree, the location of it and how it came to be."

Earlier this week, a team of volunteers fought off invaders the fence couldn't: posion ivy, English ivy and jasmine. Volunteers cut off the ivy at its base and applied limited amounts of herbicide to make sure it doesn't return.

"Right now, there's really nothing wrong with the tree," said Michael Nentwich, Norfolk's forester. "It's doing quite well. We see a lot of new growth on the tree and it's thriving. We just want to make sure we're not doing any harm to the tree."

Occasionally branches break off in storms, but officials said the tree is structurally sound. Nentwich said volunteers will start paring back weeds by the tree twice a year.

The maintenance project between the Navy and the city gave local gardeners access to a tree steeped in local history, but one that few people outside of gardening and forestry circles know about. Local legend has it that the pirate Blackbeard once climbed the tree to keep watch over the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay, according to an entry in Virginia Tech's Virginia Big Tree Database.

The Navy base considers the tree a historic treasure, but it's so far off the beaten path that it isn't included on the bus tour that thousands of tourists take each year. However, viewing the tree doesn't require special base access.

The tree can be seen from behind a chain-link fence on a public street — Rippard Avenue — less than the length of a football field away.

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