How Do You Move a 700,000-Pound Tree?

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How do you move a giant, living oak?. By sumroeng chinnapan/Shutterstock

Pity the poor trees. Stuck in the ground as they are, if they happen to stand in the way of development, all too often they are simply decommissioned.

But sometimes trees get the respect they deserve when people find a way to work around the problem. Plans can be designed to accommodate an existing tree, or, for the ambitious, the tree can just be moved.

This was the decision made recently by the University of Michigan, which is starting the expansion of the Ross Business School on the Ann Arbor campus. The 250-year-old bur oak happened to be in the way, but rather than whack it down, the powers that be decided to move it.

The tab for moving the tree will be about $400,000, money that will come out of a $100 million donation for the expansion from philanthropist Stephen Ross.

It’s expensive, it’s difficult, and it’s decidedly slow — and there was certainly some scratching of heads over the decision.

University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald says the plan doesn't suit everyone, with some complaining that it’s too much money to save one tree.

BJ Smith, a Michigan forester who came to watch the move, told NPR, "For the same price, I think in Washtenaw County [where Ann Arbor is located], you can get about 120 acres of forested land. That might be a better legacy than one tree."

But that didn't stop 291 students and teachers from signing a petition to save the tree. "As I see it, the rationale for preserving the tree is about history, tradition, pride and respect," petition signer Jenny Cooper told the Ann Arbor News. "The tree is a symbol of strength and resilience and far predates the university as part of the landscape."

And indeed, tree lovers rejoiced as the tree was prepared for its 500-foot journey down the pedestrian mall to its new home on the other side of the building.

The oak’s 44-foot diameter root ball was swathed in plastic and burlap and nestled on long pipes, which were inserted earlier this summer to form a platform for lifting. Then it was raised onto large rubber bags — like thick, long inner tubes — so that transporters could slip underneath as the bags were inflated. When the bags were deflated, the tree rested on the transporters ready to be moved, which was done at a snail’s pace of 1 mph.

"While it does look fairly radical and invasive — and it is — if it's done properly, chances of survival are fantastic," says Paul Cox of Environmental Design, the company charged with moving the tree.

Hopefully, fantastic enough that the grand old tree can live another 100 years, or more, in its new home. (It's common to find bur oaks that are 300 to 400 years old.)

You can see an animated illustration of how the tree was moved in the video below.