Not all state highways are created equal.
Mississippi 604 is a two-lane narrow highway with no shoulders, but the people who live along it think it is very special. Those who drive it do too, because of the canopy of old oaks, especially on the southern end off U.S. 90.
They consider the trees historic and say it adds a sense of place in an area that has been devastated by storms and flooding.
Pearlington has dwindled to about 400 residents, a handful of businesses, a library, a fire department and a community center that the water and sewer board uses. But it still has its trees.
The mayor of neighboring Waveland drove his grandson down that road recently and posted: “It’s is a very nice drive with the canopy. It would be a mistake to cut these trees.”
Then a complaint to Hancock County supervisors triggered an inspection of the highway and a decision to trim the canopy has set off a powder keg, an outcry.
The cutting began on the south end, where more people live.
County Supervisor David Yarborough said once he reported a complaint by an RV owner whose awning hit a tree limb, how much cutting being done was out of his control. All he could do was ask for consideration from the state, he said.
He said he did ask the Mississippi Department of Transportation to “tone it down a little bit, once people started calling.”
There had been reports that the cutting was going as high as 30 feet up the trees.
“But what they cut, they cut,” he said.
The message spread on social media beginning the afternoon of Aug. 14. Those who want to preserve the drive under the oaks posted a petition on Facebook and a political opponent of Yarborough’s told readers he would begin circulating a paper petition at the convenience store.
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And though it looked like the people who want the trees left alone were winning last week — crews had stopped cutting — it may not be over.
Kelly Castleberry with MDOT said the cutting crews might have been reassigned temporarily, but Mississippi 604 will be cut.
He said, they were working to trim limbs 13-foot-6-inches above the roadway, the state minimum. That gives enough clearance for trucks, RVs and a large fire engine to get through.
“We’re not cutting trees down,” Castleberry said, “just trimming branches. There will continue to be an oak canopy, just higher.”
He pointed out that Mississippi 604 is the fastest route to the Interstate 10 Welcome Center at Mississippi 607 and Stennis Space Center.
And Castleberry said there has been another voice emerging, a group that is pro-RVs and wants the limbs trimmed.
One man told Yarborough that a limb cost him almost $15,000 in damage to his RV awning.
It’s just that some feel that Pearlington is a community forgotten along a route to the county industrial park.
Travis Ritter, a marine engineer on tugboats whose family has lived generations in Pearlington, said the majority of complaints about the oak canopy have come from truckers whose GPS has sent them down narrow 604 to the Port Bienville Industrial Park, when the best route by far is wide-open Mississippi 607.
When you look on a map, it’s about the same distance to the entrance of the industrial park — south of U.S. 90 — either way.
“It’s not the truckers’ fault,” Ritter said.
He said that issue could be avoided if the state would put up signs letting truckers exiting I-10 know to stay on Mississippi 607 for about four miles and access Port Bienville that way.
The comments numbered more than 270 on Ritter’s first Facebook post.
Some weren’t from the area, but had driven the route and remembered its beauty, he said.
Ritter and others called it “going down a road with a lot of history.”
The ghost of logging towns and thriving days gone by are under the the moss-draped oaks.
The online petition warns:
“We as residents of Pearlington MS must come together to petition the limbs from being butchered. These beautiful limbs that create a canopy that hang over the road are a part of Live oak trees that are over 200 years old.
“This canopy of limbs create a majestic entrance into our town and are a special part of the scenic byway that belongs to Logtown.”
“We the people must protect our historical environment that makes Pearlington so special! “
Those who have seen the cutting so far have used the term “butchered.”
Others have posted: “It’s so sad because (the trees are) one of the beautiful things about Pearlington.”
“We’re just now getting the canopy back after (Hurricane) Katrina, it’s finally getting full again.”
“What a shame. Those majestic trees have hugged that roadway for decades. The stories they could tell. It’s heart breaking to know they may be damaged in the process.”
“One of my favorite roads to drive down! Makes me miss home. I hope they don’t over do it.”
“Peaceful and beautiful. Do not cut.”
Round one of the cutting that stopped mid-week, included what Ritter called scalping trees, a dramatic over clearing.
Everyone will be watching to see what happens when the work starts again.
Watch as a litter of kittens pop out of the hollow trunk of one of the Live oaks on Washington Avenue in downtown Ocean Springs.