Members of the Arbor Day Foundation didn’t really have to go out on a limb to bestow UNC Charlotte with its Tree Campus USA status – the organization’s stamp of approval for universities and colleges that demonstrate healthy attitudes toward protecting their trees.
Longtime stewards of thousands of oaks, elms and maples on campus, UNC Charlotte officials have always advocated for the tall timbers – once even slightly shifting a proposed building’s location just to appease an old bur oak that had been there first.
“It ended up dying. Somehow, the way the water flowed through the soil was disruptive during construction,” said Peter Franz, campus landscape architect. “But we tried to save it.”
It’s that “old college try” mentality that earned the university the new status this summer. Franz said most of the requirements laid out to receive the honor – such as having a tree-care program in place with an annual expenditure, holding regular tree-related service learning projects, forming a tree advisory committee, and of course, observing Arbor Day – had been in practice by the university for years.
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“Our grounds department – they’re pretty much on top of everything,” said Franz. “And administration has always been very supportive of saving our trees.”
Seven years ago, the university launched its tree replacement program – yanking out decayed wood on campus. So far, 5,500 trees have been replaced, bringing the total number of trees on campus to around 14,000.
Some of the planting is done through service learning projects that involve students planting, logging and then tracking the trees through a GIS system.
Using campus trees for learning opportunities and research has been a tradition dating to the 1960s, with Herbert Heckenbleikner, a biology professor who planted trees rare to the region around campus.
Now towering with thick foliage, his trees are hard to miss. There’s one at the university’s main entrance and another in a nearby field. Scores of them throughout campus still dot the landscape.
Every now and then, the idea to remove one is broached, usually by a new colleague unfamiliar with the history of Heckenbleikner’s trees.
“Those are the trees that anybody who’s been here a long time knows to say, ‘Wait. You can’t do that,” said Franz.
The desire to create green campuses has grown in interest since Heckenbleikner’s trees were planted a half-century ago.
Since launching the Tree Campus USA program in 2008, more than 240 colleges and universities have become designees, with eight of them in North Carolina – Wake Forest, Duke, High Point and Appalachian State universities, UNC Greensboro, UNC Charlotte and Alamance and Southeastern community colleges.
The reasons are plenty, but some are more obvious than others.
Beautiful campuses are attractive to prospective students and the parents who often are dropping off their kids to live on their own for the first time.
But trees can also create a smaller carbon footprint and appeal to a university’s economical side. Planting enough of them can reduce air temperature, which could lead to lower cooling costs in nearby buildings.
Now that the university has earned Tree Campus USA status, Franz said the tree advisory committee might begin looking into potential future ideas, such as creating an arboretum on campus.
“We already have a variety of trees,” he said. “It’s just another aspect that would provide a learning experience for students and visitors.”
Lisa Thornton is a freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org