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New tools help IU be more proactive, strategic in care of campus trees

Oct. 28, 2015

Drought. Infestation. Severe weather. Disease.

The past decade hasn’t been easy on campus trees.

But with new technology and more robust data, IU employees are able to be more strategic and proactive about protecting the woodland spaces for which IU Bloomington is known. 

Dunn's Woods in 1890

Dunn's Woods in 1890. | PHOTO COURTESY OF IU ARCHIVES

Once a pasture, IU’s first forests took root around 1880 under the care of the first campus groundskeeper, Milburn Beck, who would walk Dunn’s Woods and replace failed trees with trees of the same species that he found in the wooded areas outside of campus proper.

IU landscape architect Mia Williams said taking care of campus trees is a lot more complicated today.

IU employees oversee about 2,000 acres of maintained campus, stretching from the far southwest corner to the bypass. And they don’t always want to replace failed trees with what was there before.

“We know on the IU campus that we need to continue to diversify our species selection,” Williams said. “That way, if there is a disease, we can still maintain our tree canopy.”

To accomplish this, the University Architect’s Office, Landscape Services and the IU Office of Sustainability are using GPS technology to create a campus tree inventory. Over several months this summer, an Office of Sustainability intern started an inventory of ash trees, which are suffering from infestation by the emerald ash borer beetle.

Landscape Services manager Mike Girvin said the inventory found about 90 percent of ash trees showed some signs of stress. That’s why as infestations and diseases affect different species of trees, it’s important to diversify, he said. A campus tree inventory would help IU arborists be more strategic about tree selection.

Fall tree on campus

A new tree inventory will help IU arborists work to diversify species of trees on campus. | Photo By FJ Gaylor Photography

“Let’s say we plant a maple and it declines,” Girvin said. “We update our inventory, and let’s say it’s the second maple we’ve put in that location; something’s up, so we may test the soil or select a different tree.”

Tracking the trees also helps arborists know which trees they need to treat for infestation or disease and when they will need to be re-treated, he said.

In addition to responding to signs of stress in trees, Girvin said advances in forestry have enabled him to be more proactive in managing tree health. 

For example, about a year and a half ago, IU began treating small groups of trees with a growth regulator. While most campus trees don't need to grow taller, the regulator helps the trees build out their root systems and canopies, which makes them more resistant to drought and disease, he said. 

Unfortunately, there’s not much that can be done to reverse the effects of sustained drought on trees, which can continue to be seen several years later. Girvin said his employees make an effort to water newly planted trees that have yet to establish good root systems, but there’s no way his staff of three could water every tree on campus.

“Truthfully, I think we’re going to see trees dying because of droughts for the rest of my time at IU,” he said. 

In a lot of ways, IU is more prepared to protect campus trees than ever before.

Summer trees on campus

Healthy, mature campus trees help evoke a sense of stability and permanence, said Mia Williams, IU landscape architect. | Photo By Eric Rudd, IU Communications

“The bottom line is our staff,” Girvin said. “They care, they do a good job, and they are the stewards of this campus. I could not even approach doing my job without my quality staff.” 

It’s an important job, Williams said. Besides their environmental benefits, trees have a subliminal effect on IU students, employees and visitors. 

“A healthy, mature tree canopy indicates to people on some very basic level that the area is stable,” she said. “If it weren’t, this tree wouldn’t be allowed to be here for 50, 70 years.”

Tall trees also help connect pedestrians to the large buildings on campus, creating a sense of ease and making the buildings look nicer, Williams said.

“For me, it’s always been about creating little pockets of ‘aha’ -- these experiences that tie campus together,” she said.

With more robust tree data collection, Williams and Girvin said they hope all of this information can be passed on to help their successors.

“You don’t plant a tree for your own benefit,” Williams said. “It’s really a pay-it-forward-type thing. And that’s really fun to try and create those campus spaces and set those wheels in motion.”

Efforts to maintain healthy trees on campus align with several priorities in the university's Bicentennial Strategic Plan, including a commitment to student success.

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