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The University of Alabama

UA Earns National Recognition for Urban Forest Management


By Kristi Payne

The University of Alabama can perennially be found at or near the top of any given list of the nation’s most beautiful campuses. That’s due in no small part to the number and variety of trees that line its streets, accentuate its architecture and shade its picturesque Quad.

And while making a stunning first impression on visitors and prospective students is of paramount importance, maintaining the more than 10,000 trees that make up the Capstone’s urban forest isn’t just about aesthetics. It’s about sustainability, conservation and ecological soundness.

Dr. Lynda Gilbert, vice president of financial affairs, has made it a top priority for the University.

“We certainly want our campus to continue to be known for its beauty, but we also want it to represent the University’s legacy,” she said. “As soon as someone arrives on campus, it should be evident that we’re committed to the future of our students as well as this university’s legacy for the citizens of the state of Alabama.”

The Arbor Day Foundation recently honored the University for just that by bestowing it with national recognition as a Tree Campus USA designee for demonstrating excellence in campus forestry management. Tree Campus USA universities must meet five core standards each year, including the maintenance of a tree advisory committee, a campus tree care plan, dedicated annual expenditures for the campus tree program, an Arbor Day observance and student service-learning projects.

Gilbert tasked Col. Duane Lamb, assistant vice president of facilities and grounds, and Donna McCray, director of grounds use permits and facilities operations, with preparing the submission to the Arbor Day Foundation for the award. It turned out that UA’s established forestry management practices already exceeded many of the standard requirements for receiving the distinction.

“Our tree policy was significantly more in-depth than what was required and we’ve had a tree care committee in place since 2008,” said Lamb. “We take great pride, not just in caring for the trees from a forestry standpoint, but from a protection standpoint.”

In the interest of protection, campus properties are continuously surveyed by foresters who use GPS software to tag trees with their location and statistics, such as height, diameter, overall health and approximate age.

UA’s oldest tree is an oak that stands behind the Bryant Conference Center. It’s more than 100 years old and, according to its regular health checks, is still doing well with standard maintenance.

There is also a Chinese Pistache believed to be more than a century old on the Peter Bryce campus. Once named a state champion tree for its height and expansiveness, that senior specimen requires a little more TLC.

“The limbs on the Pistache reach all the way to the ground; some had even taken root in the soil,” said McCray. “Col. Lamb performed research in the Mississippi Gulf Coast region and built a cradle to support this tree like the ones used to help that area’s heavy oaks withstand hurricanes.”

Mature trees with rings of protective mulch.

Rings of mulch protect tree roots from foot traffic and burrowing animals.

The department also uses techniques such as limb cabling and deep root fertilization to help the Pistache and other veteran trees flourish throughout their golden years. Trees are rarely felled unless they have reached the end of their life span and have become a safety concern.

“In the case that we do have to remove a tree for good, we replace it with up to 10 younger trees around campus so that future generations will be able to enjoy the same beauty, multiplied by 10,” said Lamb.

The species of the replacement trees varies by location and usage, as directed by University designer and head landscaping architect Dan Wolfe. Magnolias may be used for ornamentation, oaks placed in areas that could use more shade and crepe myrtles to add color.

In most cases, trees that must be removed for circumstances such as construction are simply transplanted to other areas of campus. In the eight and one-half years Lamb has been with the department, he’s orchestrated the successful transplant of some 400 specimens, including a 36-foot-tall Deodar Cedar that was lifted from the ground at Farrah Hall by crane in 2010 and driven down University Boulevard on a tractor trailer to Marr’s Spring, where it still stands healthy and strong.

Student and alumni pride in the campus forest has skyrocketed since Lamb and McCray implemented new tree protection policies, such as the prohibition of hanging items from or chaining them to the trees. Once limbs and bark are damaged by these practices, trees become more vulnerable to the elements and susceptible to disease and infestation.

“Once we explained why it was necessary to make these rules, everyone understood; everyone got on board,” said McCray. “It’s not uncommon to see students and alumni step in and tell someone, ‘Hey, you can’t do that.’ They feel like it’s their campus and they take deep personal pride in it.”

Research shows the beauty of a campus is a strong influence in a prospective student's decision to attend.

Research shows the beauty of a campus is a strong influence in a prospective student’s decision to attend.

Lamb says that the campus is fulfilling Dr. Gilbert’s vision. He points to a scientific study that found more than 60 percent of high school seniors make a decision on whether to attend a college within the first 15 minutes on campus.

“In the first 15 minutes, families haven’t yet met with an advisor or toured any buildings; they’re driving through campus or walking across the Quad, taking in the atmosphere we’ve created,” he said. “Families fall in love with our tree canopy. Parents feel like if we take such immaculate care of our campus, we’ll take immaculate care of their children.”

“I’m extremely proud of the job our grounds and facilities department has done to take our campus image to the next level by earning Tree Campus USA status,” said Gilbert. “This recognition acknowledges the efforts of every committee member, grounds worker, student and alumnus who contributes to the preservation of our illustrious campus image.”