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Joe Barger stands near a ginkgo tree on Nashville Street in Ringgold, Ga. The mayor wants to prevent the trees from being replaced with maples.
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Ringgold Mayor Joe Barger wants to prevent ginkgo trees in Citizen's Park from being replaced with maples.

RINGGOLD, Ga. - Joe Barger was riding down the streets of Tokyo 33 years ago when a row of plants caught his eye.

Tall trees with leaves like fans, Barger was fascinated by the ginkgo. As a welding researcher and equipment designer with Combustion Engineering, he had traveled all over the world, from England to Italy to China. He always loved seeing different areas' plants.

But none of them compared to the ginkgo. It's the world's oldest tree. It has no ancestors. The leaves turn dark green in the summer, bright yellow in the fall -- right around now.

"It's a beautiful tree," said Barger, 84. "A valuable tree."

He wanted to plant them in Ringgold, where he was the mayor. He knew a guy who knew a guy who could get him one. So in 1987, at the intersection of Tennessee and Nashville streets, Barger planted a ginkgo tree. It was about as round as a quarter.

The tree's diameter is now 18 inches. It stands next to a second ginkgo, one the local Boy Scouts troop planted in Barger's honor a couple of years later.

But in the next couple of months, construction workers are scheduled to tear both trees down. The trees' downfall is a piece of Ringgold's downtown renovation, seven years in the making.

After receiving a $250,000 grant from the Department of Transportation in 2007, the Ringgold City Council raised about $650,000 in local funding over the course of seven years to launch a downtown improvement project. Construction began two months ago. Workers will widen the sidewalk, add more streetlights and make the drainage system operate faster.

And replace the ginkgos. This has been part of Ringgold's plans for the last seven years, and Barger signed off on those plans. But he didn't notice the part about his plants until a couple of weeks ago.

On one sheet out of a stack of papers diagramming the city's changes, in small writing next to two circles that represent trees, the designer wrote one word: Maple.

"The print isn't very big," Barger said. "I didn't look that close."

Now, Barger wants to alter those plans. But after seven years of raising money and accepting bids and seeking approval from the Department of Transportation, the mayor worries it might be too late for a change -- any change, even what seems to him like a small change.

"It was engineered and designed," City Manager Dan Wright said. "They had a landscape architect. Of course, the mayor and the council reviewed these plans over the last seven years, numerous times. I don't recall a discussion about replacing these trees. ... Until the mayor brought it up, I wasn't really aware that it was happening."

Even so, when the Ringgold City Council meets tonight at 7, Barger will ask the other members whether they will approve a slight alteration to the plans so he can save the trees.

All the other council members either declined to talk about the issue or did not return calls seeking comment last week.

But if the council preserves the ginkgos for now, it is unclear how long those trees' lives will last. Ginkgos can grow taller than 50 feet. They are too big for the corner of grass where they stand.

Something has pushed the concrete surrounding those trees up in places, turning the sidewalk jagged. Barger swears the trees' roots aren't the problem. He promises that he dug them deep enough when he planted the first tree.

Barger, who has been on the council for 47 years, will no longer be in public office next year. He said his health isn't good enough to justify a term that goes past his 85th birthday.

But he is proud of the progress he has seen while in office. He is proud of the growth. Those trees are a symbol of that. He is concerned for their future.

"I have no idea what [the council] will vote," he said last week. "It may not be a problem. And three of them may vote to get rid of them. ... That's what I'm afraid of."

Contact Staff Writer Tyler Jett at tjett@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476.

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