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Family Goes To Great Lengths To Save The ‘Big Tree’

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(credit: KTVT/KTXA) Jason Allen
Jason came to North Texas after working as a reporter for four y...
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ERATH COUNTY (CBSDFW.COM) – It was there during the Texas Revolution. It was a bit taller during the Civil War. When Jacob and Sophia Koonsman found a homestead south of Stephenville in Erath County, the big oak became the tree the family settled around. Today, the Koonsman’s believe it is 200 years old at a minimum, but it almost didn’t survive the state’s need for more reliable power.
“We finally decided that there wasn’t a nice way to do it,” said Jon Koonsman. “We had to put them on the spot and hold these people accountable.”

The people Koonsman was referring to are from Lone Star Transmission. The company is charged with building a 300-mile transmission line that will aid in carrying wind generated electricity from West Texas to other parts of the state. It will also improve the overall reliability of the state’s power grid.

The original path for the line took it through the Koonsman’s land. Lone Star’s parent company NextEra Energy though said the path was too close to a pipeline field. The new path impacted the Big Tree.

The huge oak stands on a small rise, just above a pond on the family property. The huge trunk leans slightly. The branches on one side have grown long enough to touch the ground, and are now quickly making their way back into the air. Small stones around the tree look like old fire pits. Many have markings on them though. They are the gravestones for family pets. There are so many the family admits it isn’t sure where they all are.

The family started a public relations fight to save the tree that that included newspaper columns, a web site, a community picnic and a series of calls and letters to Lone Star and the state public utilities commission. Lone Star responded, offering a new route that avoided the tree. The company said the family turned it down. Koonsman said it drastically reduced the amount of compensation the family received for surface damages. He said the offer was pulled before the family could accept it.

“There’s no compensation for being mad, every time you look at it,” he said. “I don’t know how you square that up with people.”

The family said yet another route was offered, but it went through a thick line of trees near the family pond. The Koonsman’s prepared for the worst. When they learned work crews would be in the area around April 18, family members took turns guarding the tree. A plywood platform took shape high up in the branches. It was a literal tree house, where they theorized they could camp if the situation called for it.

“What’s particularly difficult is to get somebody out of a tree that doesn’t want to come out,” Koonsman said.

They never had to make the climb though. After an onslaught of phone calls involving the PUC last week, the Koonsman’s were told there may be a solution. Monday afternoon, Jon’s father Paul agreed to a solution that will save the Big Tree. Sitting under the tree Monday afternoon, Jon was emotion about an apparent end to the long fight.

“If it’s in writing, I’m enormously grateful,” he said.

It will have to be in writing, according to a spokesman for NextEra energy. Other impacted landowners may also have to agree to the new plan.

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“As we try to do with all of our landowners, we have worked in good-faith to respond to the concerns of the Koonsmans related to our transmission line,” the statement from NextEra said. “We are pleased to have reached an agreement on a route that will not impact the Big Tree. While this is an important step, we still must execute a signed agreement with the Koonsmans and other impacted landowners.”

While the fight to save the Big Tree may be over, Koonsman experience with the battle may not be. He has become somewhat of an unofficial contact for others now interested in preserving parts of their own properties.

“Have people call me every day, going through the same thing,” he said. “This process is going to be contentious, period.”

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