- The Washington Times - Friday, January 18, 2002

The trunk of an exotic tree that Abraham Lincoln routinely used as a "natural air conditioner" has died but experts think the tree's branches, many of which have dipped down and formed their own roots systems, will live on.

Believed to be more than 170 years old, the copper beech tree is on a parcel of land at the U.S. Soldiers' and Airmen's Home in Northwest, which was named a national monument in summer 2000.

"It's a sad passage to think that that tree is going to be gone," said Sophie Lynn of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which last month convened an eight-member panel of horticulturalists, arborists and landscape architects to decide the tree's future.

The home's director is expected to decide next week what course of action to take with the historic tree, whose species' scientific name is Fagus sylvatica, and begin about two months later.

The inside of the tree's base has fallen prey to fungal organisms, which older trees are susceptible to, according to Jean Schaefer, a spokeswoman for the home. But the outer ring will be saved.

Meanwhile, the tree's arms have branched out and developed healthy leaves. And the tree's roots have emerged and grown upward, becoming healthy branches.

When President Clinton declared the 2.3 acres around the tree a national monument in July 2000, some of its age and failing health was noticeable, said Ms. Lynn, who is the project manager for the President Lincoln and Soldiers' Home National Monument.

At that time of the summer, the tree was in its "full grandeur," providing a canopy of cool shade, she said.

"That tree was a natural air conditioner," said Bill Woods, an amateur history buff, Army veteran and resident of the home since 1993. "[Lincoln] used the tree to get away from it all."

Considered Lincoln's "Camp David," the home sits on a knoll that makes the location the third-highest site in the District, and the former president used it as a summer retreat, Ms. Schaefer said.

The tree's leaves accumulated overnight dew, and summer breezes would drop the temperature by as much as 15 degrees beneath the tree, Mr. Woods said. Lincoln's aides assembled tables beneath the canopy for him to conduct executive business, and he also played there with his sons.

The dead trunk is a safety hazard, Ms. Lynn said, which means it will have to be taken down.

But there are strong efforts to encourage growth of the tree's perimeter, she said.

One idea is to take a genetic fingerprint of the tree in order to prolong its historic legacy by reproducing its stock, she said.

"It's not a common tree," said Scott Aker, a horticulturalist at the National Arboretum.

Mr. Aker, who was not among the specialists who convened and forwarded recommendations to the home's director, said the tree's genus and species was first classified in 1772 in a forest in Germany.

He said the tree likely ended up in the District as a result of people importing and exporting various seeds, and its end was inevitable.

"All trees have a life span," Mr. Aker said. "They are not immortal beings. They can live much longer than we can, but time catches up with them."

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