Arbor Day 2023: Celebrating Silent — but Important — Campus Residents

Kevin McSweeney, Arboretum Director and Tree Committee Chair, speaking at the 2022 Arbor Day Celebration.

University of Illinois students, faculty, and staff take great pride in the natural beauty of our campus, from Boneyard Creek to the sprawling quads. This April, one aspect of the campus landscape will receive special recognition: our trees.

More than 16,000 trees grow on university grounds, but they are not a static feature of the landscape. Facilities and Services (F&S) actively manages these natural resources and plans for the replacement and addition of each tree on campus.

Campus trees will be honored at the university’s Arbor Day Celebration at noon Friday, April 28. The university will plant a tree near Davenport Hall on the Main Quad and read a proclamation expressing our commitment to tree care. The celebration (one of many during Earth Month) highlights the ecological and social value of trees, including carbon sequestration, habitat for native species, shade, and mental health benefits.

Arbor is the Latin word for tree, and Arbor Day has been celebrated for more than 150 years. The creation and naming of the holiday can be traced to Nebraska City, after a local journalist advocated for a tree planting holiday to spread awareness of the value of trees. The idea was approved by the State Board of Agriculture a couple years later and local schools began to participate, which popularized the event. The holiday caught on in other states, and in 1970, President Nixon declared Arbor Day a national holiday.

Since 2015, the University of Illinois has hosted a campuswide Arbor Day celebration, the same year we achieved Tree Campus USA Higher Education status from the Arbor Day Foundation. This status demonstrates the university’s commitment to protecting our local trees and ecosystems. To maintain it, we must meet five overarching standards.

The first standard requires that all Tree Campuses establish a campus tree advisory committee to guide future landscape planning, approve of a campus tree plan, educate the campus community on the benefits of trees, and foster connections to the landscape.

Tree Campus USA plaque.

The University of Illinois’ Tree Committee is chaired by Kevin McSweeney, Director of the Arboretum. Other members represent different campus units and stakeholders, including the University Landscape Architect, the Superintendent of Grounds, the Associate Director for Sustainability at F&S, and the Forestry Supervisor for the City of Champaign. Representatives from the Student Sustainability Committee (SSC), the Student Sustainability Leadership Council, and Students for Environmental Concerns serve on the committee as well.

The second requirement is the development of a Tree Care Plan, a comprehensive policy to guide the planting, maintenance, and removal of trees on campus. The most recently published Tree Care Plan is available on the Illinois Climate Action Plan (iCAP) Portal. It outlines exactly how the University of Illinois achieves each Tree Campus Higher Education standard and explains how the Tree Care Plan complements other sustainability initiatives and committees on campus.

The third requirement is the allocation of funds for campus tree programs outlined in the Tree Care Plan. The current budget is $410,000, which includes $50,000 for planting and initial care, $315,000 for tree management, and $45,000 for other costs like equipment maintenance, bucket and chipper truck rental fees, and equipment investments. The funds are provided annually by the state and are managed by the F&S Grounds department.

The fourth requirement is observance of Arbor Day by the university, and the final requirement is the creation of service-learning projects related to trees. The University of Illinois has an abundance of experiential opportunities for students on campus.

F&S offers semester-long internships for both university students and local high school students to assist with landscape architecture. Four students were employed at the Arboretum last summer to restore native habitat in the Southern Arboretum Woodlands (SAW). Freshman field day for Natural Resources & Environmental Sciences (NRES) is held in the SAW as well.

Red Bison, a Registered Student Organization, also leads restoration efforts at the SAW. Student members received funding from SSC to plant native pawpaw, hazelnut, plum, elderberry, viburnum, willow, and chokeberry seedlings in spring 2023. Aside from restoration projects, the university hopes to analyze existing ecosystems around campus.

Students censusing trees in Trelease Woods.

Trelease Woods, a university property and one of the most studied forests in America, will be re-censused five years after the first census was completed. NRES and the School of Integrative Biology received SSC funding in 2018 to complete an initial census of 31,980 trees. The data was collected over three years and uploaded to ForestGeo — a global network of forest dynamics plots coordinated by the Smithsonian Institution.

In Fall 2022, both departments were awarded more SSC funding for a second census throughout 2023 and 2024. The re-census will reveal how forest ecosystems change over time and examine how climate change impacts forests’ capacity to sequester carbon. About 50 students will serve as surveyors on this project.

Landscape and tree care experiential learning opportunities are available to graduate students as well. Gabriel Harper-Hagan, a Landscape Architecture graduate student, is drafting a new biodiversity master plan for the Champaign-Urbana region, including the campus. This plan has strategies to improve biodiversity, including recommendations for invasive tree removal, street tree programs, and picking species north of their range to account for climate change.

Although the university’s tree programs are not widely recognized across campus, they are essential to the stewardship of our local ecosystems. The campus Arbor Day celebration is the first step to raising awareness of the vital importance of trees to environmental and community health.

Leading up to Arbor Day, the Tree Committee is hosting its first Arbor Day Tree Contest. From April 1 to April 22, students, faculty, and staff can nominate an individual tree on campus to be recognized. The Tree Committee will select five finalists from the entrants. At the campus Arbor Day Celebration on April 28, the campus community will select from those finalists this year’s Favorite Campus Tree.

The goal of the contest is to raise awareness of the trees we walk past everyday and encourage appreciation of individual trees. The contest emphasizes the personal relationships we develop with our natural environment. You can nominate a tree here.

The 2023 Arbor Day celebration and tree planting will take place noon-1 p.m. Friday, April 28, just outside of Davenport Hall on the Main Quad. Stick around for guided tree walks, iSEE’s “Tree-via,” and the vote and announcement of the Favorite Campus Tree!

— Article by iSEE Communications Intern Lucy Nifong