250-year-old fallen magnolia tree carved into Smokey Bear statue by Soso chainsaw artist

From left to right: Daniel Hite, carver; Anne Casey, De Soto District Ranger; Russell Walters,...
From left to right: Daniel Hite, carver; Anne Casey, De Soto District Ranger; Russell Walters, De Soto Equipment Operator; and Larry Tucei, member of the Native Tree Society.(Forest Service photo by Mario Rossilli)
Published: Jul. 20, 2021 at 3:08 PM CDT
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WIGGINS, Miss. (WDAM) - A southern magnolia tree that is estimated to have stood in the De Soto National Forest for more than 250 years has a new home and purpose after it was was felled by Hurricane Zeta in October.

The Champion Southern Magnolia Tree will remain in the De Soto National Forest in a different spot, but it also has a different look and message thanks to a Soso chainsaw artist.

After it fell, members of the U.S. Forest Service brought the tree to Daniel Hite of Big Creek Chainsaw Carving.

Over two weeks, Hite transformed the historic tree into a statue of Smokey Bear, which now sits in the office lobby of the De Soto Ranger District in Wiggins, reminding visitors of the importance of preventing wildfires.

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

The tree was recognized as the National Champion Southern Magnolia in September 2020 after being nominated for the American Forests Champion Trees National Register by Larry Tucei, a member of the Native Tree Society.

“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.

At its last measurement, the tree stood at 111 feet with a circumference of 211 inches at its last measure, according to Tucei, who had been measuring the tree since the early 1990s.

Larry Tucei poses with the southern magnolia in 2012.
Larry Tucei poses with the southern magnolia in 2012.(Larry Tucei)

“It’s a great way to share an important wildfire prevention message and let the public know about this magnificent tree,” Tucei said. “Hopefully, it will inspire others to learn more about trees.”

The project to repurpose the tree was headed by Russell Walters, a Forest Service equipment operator.

“We’ve been able to keep the tree on the De Soto – just in a different spot and in a different role,” Walters said.

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