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If a tree falls on the campus, will anyone replace it?

| 27 August 2003


dawn sequoia

A rare dawn sequoia near the Faculty Club is one of several on campus. Such heritage trees will benefit from donations made to a fund started by a staff arborist.

The lofty trees and lush greenery of the Berkeley campus make a lasting impression on visitors and students alike — but what people don’t see are the many empty niches left by trees that have died and not been replaced.

Now, a campus arborist has launched the Tree Fund, a grass-roots campaign with a twofold purpose: to raise money to buy and plant trees to replace those lost to disease and to underwrite more intensive care of the campus’s oldest and most cherished trees.

Since he was hired as chief arborist in 2000, Richard Trout has lamented the stagnant $1,000-per-year campus budget for plant replacement, a legacy of the state’s early-1990s budget crisis. With even worse budget cuts in store for the future, he sees no choice but to ask tree lovers for money — to replant dead or removed trees and to make sure the heritage trees of the Berkeley campus don’t disappear.

“Berkeley is a beautiful site,” says Trout, “because we have the most interesting and certainly the oldest planted trees of any UC campus. Without the trees, we’d be just an urban commuter college.”

The oldest planted trees on campus are redwoods standing southeast of Giannini Hall, planted by the original owners of the property more than 140 years ago. Some of the oaks and bays probably predate the establishment of the campus.

Trout points to other treasures as well, in particular the unique specimen trees: the unusual titoki tree of New Zealand, planted along West Crescent some 125 years ago; the many olive trees around Giannini and Wellman Halls, transplanted there from the university’s original botanical garden; and the bizarre buckeye tree near Faculty Glade, its insides rotted out but thriving nonetheless.

But, Trout estimates, some 30 campus trees die and are removed every year, victims of disease such as root rot or butt rot, insect pests, or plain old age. With more than 2,000 individual trees on campus representing 200-plus species, this may not be noticed by the casual visitor, but longtime residents can’t but note the passing of major landscape trees: two gnarled coast live oaks removed last year from the glade outside the Faculty Club; the rotted-out Monterey cypress cut down earlier this year next to McCone Hall; or the soaring eucalyptus, four feet in diameter, that had to be removed five years ago from the backyard of University House, the Chancellor’s residence, before it toppled.

With a single 12-foot tree costing up to $800, the budget for plant materials — grass and bushes as well as trees — doesn’t go far. Additional money is often found to replace prominent landscape trees like the Faculty Glade oak, but less noticeable sites remain empty, sometimes for decades.

Who remembers, for example, the lane of 11 pepper trees, only three of which now remain, that once bordered the music building, Morrison Hall? Or the five Port Orford cedars along Strawberry Creek north of the Valley Life Sciences Building whose number has been reduced to one?

In recent years, four to five mature coast live oaks, the species native to the site on which the campus was established 135 years ago, have died along the north fork of Strawberry Creek. And the campus’s last turkey oak, a tall European specimen, died recently — a victim of oak root fungus — near the west entrance to campus.

Says Trout, “The fund would help replace the trees that fail in the landscape, bringing in long-lived trees like oaks but also short-lived ornamentals like pears and flowering cherries. We could easily plant 100 trees per year or more for a number of years because of the built-up deficit.”

Trout’s supervisor, operations manager Phil Cody, is excited about the fundraising campaign. “Trees are the backbone of any landscape,” he says, “and it’s a shame that we haven’t been able to fund the planting of new trees to replace ones that died or had to be removed.” Cody, who oversees a three-man tree crew in the campus’s grounds unit, says, “It takes a long time for them to grow, and I consider it important to get them in quickly to establish themselves.”

First tally the trees
An important first step in assessing the status of campus trees is an inventory now underway under the directior of John Radke, associate professor of landscape architecture. Last year, students in his annual fall class on computer applications in landscape architecture began an inventory and mapping of all trees on the 178-acre core campus. About half the project is complete, and students will resume work on it in the fall.

“There have been major changes since the last inventory of campus trees in 1976,” says Trout, who holds a master’s degree in environmental planning from Berkeley. “For example, we’ve lost more than 20 percent of the campus’s live oaks, which is something you wouldn’t know without an inventory like Radke’s.”

Trout expects about two-thirds of any money raised from fund contributors to go toward tree replacement, with the remainder to be used to purchase equipment to monitor or maintain the health of current trees.

“The campus has an aging tree population, with many in decline,” he points out. “The Tree Fund will provide diagnostic tools to evaluate tree health and hazards, and also pay for special equipment.”

The latter category includes sonic tomography equipment to check the inner health of trees without invasive drilling, and a compressed-air excavator to dig around roots without damaging them.

“One of the major problems on such an old campus is soil compaction, which cuts off air to the roots,” Trout says. “With an air excavator,” Cody adds, “we can go in and clear out the soil in a fifth the time it takes with hand tools.” For now, though, the $24,000 compressor is on his wish list.

In discussing the Tree Fund, Trout and Cody wrestled with the issue of how to thank donors. Plaques on trees are out of the question, but one option is for donors to adopt a tree.

“I think this fund will evolve,” Cody says, adding that the ideal would be a long-term tree replacement plan that donors could follow as it progresses. “It would be nice if people could actually walk up to a place and say, ‘I contributed to that.’”

To learn about the Tree Fund, visit landscape.ced.berkeley.edu/~treefund