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Fallen champion Magnolia tree gets new mission: Sharing fire prevention message

Group photo with carved Smokey Bear statue.
Left to right: Daniel Hite, carver; Anne Casey, De Soto district ranger; Russell Walters, De Soto equipment operator; and Native Tree Society member Larry Tucei pose with a new Smokey Bear Statue carved from the fallen national champion Southern magnolia Tree. USDA Forest Service photo by Mario Rossilli.

MISSISSIPPI—The national champion Southern magnolia tree that once towered over the De Soto National Forest, providing shade, wildlife habitat and a sense of awe to onlookers now has a new role: sharing the important message of wildland fire prevention. The tree, felled by Hurricane Zeta last October, was repurposed and carved into a statue of Smokey Bear.

“It really was a magnificent tree. It had many visitors, many admirers. We were proud of having a tree with such a distinction on the forest. We wanted to commemorate its importance. Smokey Bear was a fitting new role for the Southern magnolia,” said De Soto District Ranger Anne Casey.

A crew of Forest Service employees with saws, chains and a trailer hauled the tree to nearby Big Creek Chainsaw Carving, where it underwent its transformation at the hands of artist Daniel Hite.

“I’ve been a fan of Smokey’s for as long as I can remember,” said Hite. “What an honor to take this incredible tree and carve it into one of our country’s most beloved figures.”

Larry Tueci next to the trunk of the Southern magnolia tree.
Native Tree Society member Larry Tucei poses with the Southern magnolia in 2012. Photo courtesy Larry Tucei.

The tree was estimated to be more than 250 years old and survived more infamous hurricanes—Camille in 1969 and Katrina in 2005—only to fall after soil saturation from the downpour that came with Zeta.

“We’ve been able to keep the tree on the De Soto—just in a different spot and in a different role,” said Russell Walters, a Forest Service equipment operator who headed up the project to repurpose the Southern magnolia. The Smokey Bear statue now resides in the De Soto Ranger District office lobby.

The tree, recognized in September 2020 as the national champion Southern magnolia, stood 111 feet with a circumference of 211 inches at its last known measurement, according to Larry Tucei, a member of the Native Tree Society. He nominated it for the American Forests Champion Trees National Register.