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Tech Turns Tree Tragedy To Triumph

For more than approximately 125 years, a sprawling, majestic elm tree resided on the small hill that serves as part of the Upper Quad of Virginia Tech’s Blacksburg campus.

Over the years, it provided desperately desired shade for students on sultry afternoons, particularly those in the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets who, until the past decade, lived in Rasche and Brodie Halls, two residence halls without air conditioning. For years, it offered a cool place for lunch, a resting stop from academic studies, and a solitary spot for courting sweethearts.

Many watched the setting sun shimmer through its long, twisting branches and in the fall, admired its beautiful golden and orange leaves, ones that eventually carpeted the well-manicured lawn surrounding it.

“That tree saw a lot,” admitted Cmdr. Nate Brown ’98, the alumni director for the Corps of Cadets. “If that tree could talk, it would have an amazing story to tell.”

Unfortunately, though, the Rasche elm tree, as many knew it, is no more. In August, Jamie King, the urban forest manager and university arborist, and a group of researchers and scientists made the agonizing decision to take down the tree after its lengthy battle with Dutch elm disease — a non-native fungus transmitted by a beetle that prevents the steady flow of water from the roots to the leaves. The affliction is common and plaguing elm trees across the United States.

The decision to end the life of the campus’ largest tree and one that predates the founding of Virginia Tech, and quite possibly, the Civil War, was heartbreaking, according to King.

“I felt personal failure that we weren’t able to save it,” King said. “But the odds were stacked against us. At the time, it’s a weighty decision, and I regret it, but I don’t think we could have done anything else. Sharing the news was a disappointment. It still hurts.”

The decision was not an individual one. King, who leads the urban forestry team, and researchers from the College of Natural Resources and Environment invested three years worth of thought, resources, and work toward saving this campus treasure.

Though this story was not a successful one, this group of tree lovers will not be stumped. They stand committed now more than ever to preserving the lives of more than 11,000 trees on Virginia Tech’s Blacksburg campus.

The Rasche elm tree provides shade over the Addison Caldwell statue on a summer day. Photo by Meghan Marsh for Virginia Tech.

Nightmare on elm trees

To understand Virginia Tech’s commitment to its trees, one only needs to consider the efforts put in to saving the Rasche elm.

Not long after being hired in 2019, King, who graduated from Virginia Tech with a degree in natural resources conservation and minors in forestry and in urban forestry, noticed some structural issues with the tree and started investigating further. The following year, the urban forestry team and researchers had the tree pruned and collected a sample. A local lab revealed that the tree had bacterial leaf scorch, a disease that causes leaves to turn brown prematurely each year. It is not as serious as Dutch elm disease and a problem that the team hopefully could resolve with pruning.

Over the next three years, they monitored the tree. The team oversaw pruning efforts, and using a technique pioneered by Jay Stipes, a former Virginia Tech professor of plant pathology and affectionately known as the “tree doctor,” team leaders injected the tree with a fungicide.

But they continued to notice problems. They tested the mulch around the base of the tree for possible toxins and made plans to install cables to help with the structure problem. They also started irrigating.

Finally, this past spring, King noticed additional flagging, or the wilting of branches, and the curling of leaves, known as cupping. He made a cut in the tree and saw staining in the wood – a sign of Dutch elm disease. A lab confirmed the diagnosis.

Dutch elm disease is the human equivalent of clogged arteries and a nightmare on elm trees. By the end of the summer, the fungus had spread so much that it left little alternative. King then informed the commandant of the corps, Maj. Gen. Randal Fullhart, of the news.

“At the end of the day, this is science,” King said. “I’m a scientist, and we don’t make rash decisions.

“We took extra measures with that tree because it was worth it. Others aren’t going to have the same odds or are too far gone. Generally, when I present the evidence to any stakeholder, they understand. They may be disappointed, and I’m disappointed, but at the end of the day, it’s a scientific decision, and it’s hard to argue with that.”

In all, more than two dozen people have been involved with the tree-saving effort in some capacity over the past three years – a powerful show of commitment, though one not surprising.

That commitment has been ongoing for the past 50 years.

Jay Stipes (in front) at a dedication of a commemorative bench and elm tree in his honor across from Price Hall, where he worked for decades. Photo by Wesley Tallant for Virginia Tech.

Genesis of Virginia Tech urban forestry

In the early 1980s, a small group of horticulture and forestry professors formed an arboretum committee that focused on the well-being of trees on campus. As time went along, science and research evolved and the concept of urban forestry developed.

Urban forestry is simply the management and care of trees in urban settings, and it views trees as critical to urban infrastructures, including college campuses. Physical health, mental health, and environmental health became and remain the focal points of urban forestry.

At Virginia Tech, the arboretum committee morphed into the urban forestry advisory committee. The group advocated for the hiring of an arborist to oversee preservation and management of the Blacksburg campus’ 11,500 trees – a push that led to King’s hiring in 2019.

King has put together an urban forestry team of three full-time people, a team housed in the Division of Campus Planning, Infrastructure, and Facilities. The team works in conjunction with the urban forestry advisory committee, which consists mostly of faculty members from departments across campus, including Eric Wiseman and John Seiler from the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation within the College of Natural Resources and Environment.

Together, these faculty members have created a plan that not only carries out the early mission of the arboretum committee, but also oversees ever-evolving stewardship efforts of Virginia Tech trees – projects such as the management of the old growth forest next to Lane Stadium and the reforestation efforts across Virginia Tech properties.

As a result, the university has received a special designation from Tree Campus Higher Education for 15 consecutive years.

“That’s just one of those crown jewels, so to speak, of the urban forestry program,” said Wiseman, associate professor who specializes in urban forestry. “There are lots of bragging points, but having been one of the first universities to have that designation and then having it redesignated year after year after year now for many years is a major pride point.”

Wiseman has been a pivotal figure in the university’s tree preservation efforts since arriving in 2005. Arguably, his biggest contribution has been the forming of a campus tree inventory. He assigned tree inventory exercises to his students, who logged the locations of trees, their characteristics, and potential management needs.

They built a database to store this information, and the scope of their work caught the attention of university capital planners and architects.

“They were able to use that information to improve the designs that they were making, the decisions that they were making, and so forth to grow campus, but do that in a way that was minimally impactful on existing trees,” Wiseman said. “It became part of the university’s larger geographic information system of all the physical records of the things that they track on campus – buildings, roads, utilities, so forth and so on.”

Wiseman credited a former graduate student, Peter Stewart, for writing an assessment report that analyzed the data. The report revealed the character and quality of the trees comprising the urban forest and what the management needs and opportunities were.

Grace Steger, a senior majoring in environmental conservation and society, surveys a tree to add to a digital catalogue. Photo by Meghan Marsh for Virginia Tech.

Student investment helping tree efforts

Graduate and undergraduate students have been and continue to be critical to tree management and preservation efforts. Select students from Wiseman’s Arboriculture Field Skills course work in tandem with the urban forestry team, which provides work sites and projects for the students. These projects aren’t staged, but rather are ones in which the students better learn the profession.

“Some of the best work we do in urban forestry is not just cultivating the trees, but cultivating the workforce to care for them,” King said. “We have to actively cultivate that workforce, or we won’t have anybody care for trees later.”

Ali Presby, a senior from Augusta, Georgia, who is pursuing a degree in forestry with a concentration in urban forestry, worked as a full-time intern for King this summer. She still contributes approximate eight hours a week this semester, helping with the maintenance of trees, such as pruning.

She hopes to pursue a career in urban forestry, perhaps as a plant pathologist.

“The internship gave me a good broad overview of a lot of things that tree care entails,” Presby said. “I didn’t really know. There were a lot of aspects that I had never gotten to see hands on until I started working with Jamie, and I think it not only gave me some direction for how I want to go with my career, but it also just gave me a really good view of the different options.

“It was probably like a nerdy thing that mainly tree people would say, but it was just exciting to get see all the different things that a lot of people don’t think about that goes into maintaining trees in a big public space like our campus.”

Presby also helped with community engagement events, as the urban forestry team often gives tours and hosts high school and elementary school students who express an interest in forestry. The purpose of these events is two-fold – to educate about tree care and maintenance and help develop a future workforce.

The team found that the children related well to the interns during the tours.

“We just did little things to try to get them interested in trees or at least thinking about them,” Presby said. “Most of them were younger to the point where tree biology and plant biology was not something that they’ve learned in school, so it was, I think, interesting for them to be hands on and outside with the tree. That is a lot of fun, and it is really enriching to see younger people get engaged, too.

Young disease-resistant elm trees are ready for planting on either side of the Addison Caldwell statue on the Upper Quad. These six trees will continue the legacy of the elm tree that once stood in this location. Photo by Noah Alderman for Virginia Tech.

Hope for the future

On a perfect late November day at various spots on the Upper Quad, 14 trees were planted, including six Jefferson elm trees, five Eastern hophornbeams, and three hickory trees. After discussions with researchers from Washington, D.C., King chose the Jefferson elm, a disease-resistant species with a sturdy structure currently thriving on the National Mall in the nation’s capitol.

The number of trees planted was by design and with the future in mind. King and Jack Rosenberger, campus landscape architect, see trees as helping with Virginia Tech’s Climate Action Commitment, which calls for the campus to become carbon neutral by 2030. Trees, of course, absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

“The Upper Quad has some of the lowest tree canopy on campus, and the Rasche tree was a large part of our canopy there,” King said. “Jack and I worked closely together. We have goals based on campus sustainability and climate resilience. As urban foresters, we choose trees based on their resilience to climate change or their ability to thrive on a site, and the landscape architect shares those goals and their contribution to the architecture there.”

Three elms were planted on each side of the Addison Caldwell statue that sits on the steps that lead from the Alumni Mall area to Pearson Hall East and Pearson Hall West on the Upper Quad. The Rasche elm used to be to the right of that statue.

Many longtime Corps of Cadets alumni, along with students and faculty members, will miss that magnificent elm and all it represented. But fond memories always will remain while the new grove of elms matures in its place and offers the opportunity for memories for coming generations.

“I think students will appreciate what we’re doing, along with faculty and staff, alums, and our local community,” Brown said. “I think it’ll make a lot of people happy to see new trees, and we’re not planting random trees. We’re planting trees that will thrive in this location and are natural to this area.

“We had herculean efforts to save the Rasche elm, but it had basically come to the end of its healthy life. Now it’s a matter of honoring it and talking about the history, the years of shade it provided and the beauty it contributed to the Upper Quad. And we’re preserving its legacy by planting other like trees for future generations, and we’re hoping they’ll last for the next 150 years.”

  • Jimmy Robertson

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