Reverence for campus trees makes care a tall order

James Vance and Jon Robins talk about Puget Sound’s 2,000-plus campus trees as if they were members of the family. And, like parents nurturing their children, these Facilities Services professionals fret over tree location, stability, health and pruning.

By Mary Boone

Trees are a long-term affair," says Robins, a landscape architect and recently retired director of Facilities Services. "There used to be a time when Facilities Services just cut the grass. Thankfully, we’ve been able to update that thinking. Just like buildings, the landscape needs to be an outgrowth of the campus master plan so it carries us through time."

Five years ago the university hosted a gathering of nationally renowned landscape professionals. The experts, who surveyed a number of campuses, were struck by the contrast of Puget Sound’s informal landscape against its formal Tudor and Gothic architecture.

"They were impressed by the canopy of Douglas firs and what they called the ‘wandering glen,’" Robins says, describing the way tree stands are tied together by smaller plantings and meandering rows of trees. "We’ve really tried to build on that touchstone statement as we’ve worked to create a campus arboretum."

Planning for the campus’ landscape future requires knowledge of what’s already there.

The late Gordon Alcorn, a longtime biology professor, was the unofficial landscape recorder during his tenure with the university. As trees were planted or removed, he noted those changes on a blueprint. Since Alcorn’s retirement nearly 20 years ago, no record of campus trees had been kept–until recently.

Removal of the West Woods chalets and A-frames precipitated the need for an arborist to prepare an updated tree inventory and hazardous tree analysis.

"We needed to know what the chalets’ presence had done to these trees and what we could do to help the trees flourish," says Robins. Some ailing trees were removed and an arborist was hired to cut out dead and weak branches from the crowns of trees.

"Six or seven years ago we’d get a 50 to 60 mile-per-hour wind and the campus would be littered with branches and trees," says Robins. "These days we can get a fairly significant wind, and aside from a few pine cones and small boughs, we don’t see much damage.

"We approach cutting down trees carefully," says Robins. "We know there will be a reaction; people here have a real affinity for trees. But sometimes trees are simply planted in the wrong location or need to be removed because of death or disease. We communicate and consult with others on campus before removing trees.

"By inventorying and assessing what we have, we’re putting together the pieces to formulate the best possible, long-term landscape management plan we can."