Trees of Virginia Tech hold an important place on campus
By Mason Adams
From the long-lived old growth behind Lane Stadium to the comforting ring of trees around the Drillfield; the unexpected diversity of the woods around the Duck Pond to hidden favorites in green corridors between buildings, the trees of Virginia Tech hold an important place on campus and within the hearts of Hokies everywhere.
That intense emotional attachment makes University Arborist Jamie King’s job both daunting and rewarding. King ’10, who earned a degree in natural resource conservation, returned to Virginia Tech after a stint as the arborist for Roanoke City.
“When you’re managing trees in Roanoke, it’s five square miles, so I was often in a pickup truck,” King said. “When I got to Virginia Tech, I was very excited to be on a smaller property with fewer trees that I could manage to a higher level. Even when it was cold this winter, I was riding my bicycle everywhere, which took me back to when I was a student here and reminded me of all the different things I love about my job.”
Trees and Hokies in close proximity
Q: What makes Virginia Tech’s trees special?
There are a lot of trees at Virginia Tech — high-value trees, trees that are important to students, alumni, faculty, and the community — and each one exists under a significant amount of stress because people live and work in play in such close proximity to them.
The Virginia Tech community shares similar characteristics with large towns and small cities. Many people live and work on and around the campus, which includes both high-use and low-use land areas. In cities, referencing the urban canopy, the percentage of land that is covered by tree leaves in the growing season, offers a way to measure the health of the forest and to quantify the benefits that trees provide to the public.
In general, in this part of the country, we shoot for a 40 percent tree canopy in urban areas. Virginia Tech has a low number compared to that: We’re only about 14.7 percent by the last assessment, published in January 2020. Part of the reason for that is we have a lot of agricultural land. We have athletic fields and the Drillfield, which you can’t plant trees on. Other parts of campus are densely populated with buildings and transportation infrastructure, which makes it difficult to have trees. To maximize that tree canopy, we’ve got to get creative in how we manage trees, so we can have more of them and enjoy their benefits for generations to come.
Q: How do you go about managing all these trees on campus?
Tree management is like all other types of management: First, you’ve got to know what you have. So that’s why we inventory the trees. Luckily, when I got here, there was almost a complete inventory in place. Then you need to determine your goals. We want healthy trees. We want a larger canopy. We want safe trees.
How are you going to attain those goals? Right now, I’m assessing the population on campus, getting to know the different areas where there are high densities, or trees of certain age where they require more care, or trees that are getting affected by compaction or development in the future. We develop a plan to maintain those trees so we can optimize their safety, optimize the benefit, optimize their health, and create a lasting legacy.
A big part of the inventory work is comparing species’ relative abundance. You can use those numbers to evaluate the urban forest system. We have so many sugar maples, and sugar maples happen to be susceptible to an invasive pest called Asian longhorn beetle that isn’t here yet, but could be. So we know that a certain proportion of the trees on campus are susceptible to that pest, and we need to make a plan to mitigate that.
Construction on the Blacksburg campus
Q: What happens when Virginia Tech cuts down a tree to make room for a new building? Does the university do anything to offset that?
The university remains dedicated to preserving and enhancing its natural landscape. Virginia Tech is also a big university. Growth is important so we can continue to serve more students. But through that process, we have to be mindful when we design new buildings. Behind us, they’re installing a chilled-water utility that’s essentially a central air conditioning system for the whole campus. When they were laying the plans for that, from the beginning, planners were mindful and respectful of the important trees across campus. Some trees will be lost. It’s important that we continue to plan for their replacement and also provide for the maintenance of those new trees as part of the capital investment of the larger projects.
Why trees matter
Q: What’s the importance of managing these trees? Is there a dollar figure attached to them?
We’ve been justifying our work with value — the dollar value of ecological services, real estate values, and tree benefits, including aesthetics, shade, storm water mitigation, air quality improvements, animal habitat, and more — to get people to care about them. The inventoried trees at Virginia Tech are estimated to be valued at $30.6 million dollars as a capital asset. The number is based on replacement value of the trees. But when that is all that you consider, I think that you really lose part of the story. When you come to Virginia Tech, you may be able to touch the same tree as your grandfather or grandmother, and eventually your grandkids may repeat that action. So, the tree becomes another connection to the university and to Hokies past, present, and future.
Q: How do you manage trees in a popular, highly visited place like the Duck Pond?
The Duck Pond is a popular gathering place that has a lot of meaning for a lot of Hokies. Just today, I saw people picnicking, people running along the road. There are historical properties here like Solitude and the Fraction House. The area around the Duck Pond really is a large park in close proximity to the urbanized areas on the central campus. It has a lot of really nice trees and a lot of young trees.
This big tree here [across from the gazebo] is a Quercus macrocarpa, or burr oak. I didn’t even know it was here, but noticed it when I was over here looking at something else. I saw it’s got a lot of dead wood in the top. We’re going to try to get that resolved.
The larger story is that this tree is one of the largest ones here, and at the moment, it’s dying. The dead wood could be a response to time, disease, an insect, soil compaction, or something else. I’ve got to begin a process, a formal process, of finding out. You know, why is this tree suffering? Is there anything we can do about it? This tree has a story, and I just don’t know what it is yet. It’s my job to find out. Immediately, looking at the ground, I can tell there’s a lot of foot traffic coming through here. This tree could use some mulch.
Over time, as they age, trees consolidate their resources. It’s like a retired couple after the kids move out: are they going to stay in the four-bedroom house? No, they’re going to get a condo and not have as much to take care of. Trees do the same thing, and the dead wood in the top of the tree could be a result of that. That’s called retrenchment.
I see some other signs, like the small twigs growing along the large wood. Those are a sign of stress. That’s the tree’s response of putting leaves out to create food in an emergency situation. That leads me to believe that [the problem] may be an insect, but I don’t see any evidence of that yet. I’ll need to bring some field glasses, or maybe even climb the tree to get into the top to see if I see any evidence of insect trouble.
Q: What about the trees around the Drillfield? You always see students hanging out there in hammocks, sitting on the ground. It’s a popular place.
We’re lucky to have that ring of green around the Drillfield. There are some really high-value trees in there — culturally important trees like the Alwood Oak across from Burruss Hall. They’re there to enjoy — just recently I saw some people playing guitar and eating snacks underneath one of the trees on the Drillfield—but in that process, as we pass within close proximity to trees, the soil underneath gets compacted, and that can be detrimental. The Drillfield offers great opportunity to have large trees, but it’s also a challenge to manage them.
The Merry Oak Near Smithfield Plantation
Q: How do you manage a historic tree like the Merry Oak, which is visible from U.S. 460?
The Merry Oak sits in a cornfield owned by Virginia Tech and is intimately connected to the Smithfield Plantation. There is a lot of history about this tree. My understanding is that this tree was incredibly important to the enslaved people at Smithfield Plantation. That legacy persists today, and descendants of those people come to this tree and reflect on it.
The Merry Oak is a white oak, a Quercus alba, and it’s a very big, old one. This space that we’re standing in is farmed intensively and has been for a long time. The plants in the cornfield are sharing the same space as this tree. The root zone of this tree has been impacted.
A very wise man, an arborist, once said, ‘An oak tree takes 300 years to grow and another 300 years to die.’ Unfortunately, at this point in our lives, we’re on the rear end of that. As a tree gets older, it starts to consolidate resources and retrench. This tree has some structural problems we can’t mitigate, so we’re focusing on enjoying the tree and celebrating its history while we have it. We’re exploring propagating with seeds from the tree as it retrenches, and we are working to build a fence around the tree, so that even after the tree is gone, we’ll still have the space for reflection.