Tree Campus USA: Recognizing the Past, Committing to the Future

By Troy Bennett, doctoral candidate in the Department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism 

On a surprisingly snowy day last April, 2014, the University of Utah received official recognition from the Arbor Day Foundation through their Tree Campus USA program. This honor recognizes the University’s effort and commitment to establishing and to sustaining a healthy community forest. The Tree Campus USA program recognizes college and university campuses that:

  • Effectively manage their campus trees. (At the U, this includes both the main campus of the University of Utah as well as Red Butte Garden.)
  • Develop connectivity with the community beyond campus borders to foster healthy urban forests.
  • Strive to engage their student population by utilizing service-learning opportunities centered on campus and community forestry efforts.
  • Meet five standards developed to promote healthy trees and student involvement.

The benefits of a healthy community forest on campus are many. Trees have been found to influence both our physical health and our cognitive well-being. They help clean polluted air; reduce the heat island effect; act as a buffer for flood control in urban areas; and support healthy wildlife habitat. As design and aesthetic features, trees contribute to creating a sense of place by helping to frame public spaces and buildings. Along walkways, trees can enhance pedestrian comfort by providing shade and barriers to wind.

Tree Campus USA recognition of the University of Utah is a direct result of past and current tree care management efforts. Walking across the main campus and through Red Butte Garden, one is struck by the beauty, size, variety, and sheer number of trees. This community forest has been made possible through the commitment of many people who, over the years, have cared for and maintained the trees here at the University of Utah. Looking back, this effort was profoundly influenced decades ago by Walter P. “Doc” Cottam. Dr Cottam taught botany at the U from 1931 until 1962. During his tenure, his work with hybrid oaks was world-renowned.

Cottam’s Gulch, as seen in the 1950’s. The senior class of 1947 named this picturesque pathway near President’s Circle in honor of “Doc” Cottam. Photo courtesy of University Archives.

Cottam’s Gulch, as seen in the 1950’s. The senior class of 1947 named this picturesque pathway near President’s Circle in honor of “Doc” Cottam. Photo courtesy of University Archives.

Dr. Cottam endeavored for years to establish the University of Utah as an official State Arboretum. In a speech given on Arbor Day 1961, Dr. Cottam proclaimed:

The particular reason for this assembly today is one of deep personal significance for all of us, and may we hope, be of profound historical importance for future generations that will learn to love this campus. Today marks the first public recognition of an act passed by the 1961 legislature designating the University of Utah campus as a State Arboretum…

It will, we hope, appeal strongly to all civic groups and individuals who might wish to pursue special group projects or individual memorial plantings. In short, we hope, through this arboretum, to make the University of Utah campus a State center, where every individual is part owner and is glad proud of it.

(Limb, W.H. (1962). The life and contributions of Dr. Walter P. Cottam, educator – scientist. University of Utah, Salt Lake City.)

Cottam’s work and legacy remains strong here at the University of Utah. The State Arboretum includes trees found on both the main campus as well as at Red Butte Garden. When the federal government donated land to the University for academic expansion in 1968, Dr. Cottam was instrumental in assuring that an area near Red Butte Canyon was specifically designated in the land patent agreement as an arboretum. Today, the area is known as Red Butte Garden & Arboretum.

Cottam’s Gulch winter 1980. Photo courtesy of University Archives

Cottam’s Gulch winter 1980. Photo courtesy of University Archives

Learning about the campus environment recently became more accessible through the new web-based Tree Tour, an application hosted by Facilities Management. This tool allows website visitors to virtually explore trees found throughout campus. At Red Butte Garden, an interactive plant map allows viewers to explore and learn about the many varieties of plants and trees living in the gardens and arboretum.

It is important to get involved and to be reminded that the University campus is much more than a school or workplace—it is a community, a landscape, and an ecosystem. As Elise Gatti, inaugural Chair of the U of U Campus Tree Committee notes:

“There are so many ways to think about trees—be it in terms of health impacts, economic benefits, cultural meaning, aesthetic and design contributions, biological characteristics, as green infrastructure, even the history of trees on our campus. So students from all disciplines can get involved in the committee. They can join as tree enthusiasts or find a way to relate their studies and research to trees if they prefer.”

Looking forward, Tree Campus USA recognition is a commitment to the future. Annual applications require documentation of student involvement. The University of Utah Campus Tree Committee is chaired by a student and is structured to give students a voice in an interdisciplinary group of faculty, staff, and community organizations. The Committee is always seeking new student members to coordinate service-learning projects or to otherwise participate. If you think you might be interested, now is a good time to get involved. For more information visit the Campus Tree Committee website, hosted by the Sustainability Office.

Author’s Note: the author would like to recognize the U of U Campus Tree Committee for their contributions to this post, as well as the Sustainability Office. Thank you for support and expertise!

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