By Nicole Sanseverino
Rows of stately oaks, massive mesquites and walnut trees line the edges of the University of Texas at Austin’s campus. These century-old beauties may look like a gift from Mother Nature, but their sustained growth is not without effort.
The Arbor Day Foundation recently recognized UT’s efforts to maintain the campus’s 4,817 trees, and to educate the surrounding community.
“It’s a huge accolade,” Larry Maginnis, campus forester and assistant manager in Landscape Services, said. “Trees play a lot in regards to the quality of life that the campus has.”
Maginnis is the guiding force behind the award-winning forestry program. His team of arborists and student volunteers catalogue, plant, maintain and protect UT’s urban forest.
UT was one of three college campuses in the nation to receive a Tree Campus USA designation from the Arbor Day Foundation during the program’s inaugural year in 2008. Three years later, UT is now among 115 universities, including Texas A&M University, Duke University and Auburn University, boasting the award.
To be a Tree Campus USA, a college campus must meet five standards. The college must have a campus tree advisory committee and a campus tree care plan, observe Arbor Day, engage students in projects related to trees, and dedicate at least $3 per full-time enrolled student to tree expenditures.
“We blow that amount out of the water by spending about $7 [per student] towards trees,” Maginnis said.
More than 50,000 full-time graduate and undergraduate students attend UT. That means, approximately $350,000 of student tuition is spent on UT’s tree maintenance program each year.
Maginnis said this investment is well worth it.
“You walk across Guadalupe and you know when you’re on campus,” Maginnis said. “The trees have a lot to do with it … you can’t buy that. That’s 75 to 80 years worth of tree history growing there to make that image what it is.”
Maginnis said UT’s campus hasn’t always been fertile ground for growing and maintaining trees.
“The original 40 Acres and the surrounding areas were all essentially mowed down in order to provide fortification for the capital building during the Civil War,” Maginnis said.
Following the Civil War in 1863, campus was virtually left treeless. Only three trees survived. Known as the Battle Oaks, these trees were spared so the soldiers could find some shade from the oppressive southern sun, according to Maginnis. The Battle Oaks can be found between the Barbara Jordan statue and Hogg Auditorium on the west side of campus.
The tree planting movement that followed was pioneered in part by Judge James Clark, law professor Robert Lynn Batts, and comptroller John William Calhoun, whom Maginnis calls “the godfather of the trees.”
“[Calhoun] began kind of a Live Oak Era here on campus. He was essentially the one responsible for planting all the stately oaks across campus,” Maginnis said.
Starting in 1926, Calhoun planted more than 600 trees on campus. The former comptroller did more to populate the 40 Acres with trees than anyone before or anyone since.
“We’re trying to create our own new renaissance in regards to tree planting; bring up the new guards so to speak, the next generation of trees. We have a lot of catching up to do with that guy [Calhoun]. He’s definitely done a lot,” Maginnis said.
With this goal in mind, Maginnis started UT’s Longhorn ReLeaf program. Since the inception of ReLeaf, students have aided in planting nearly 300 trees around campus.
“I saw this opportunity … We have a lot of students with energy. I provide the trees and the tools and students bring the muscle,” said Maginnis. “We’re actually filling up campus quiet nicely.”
Trees aren’t the only things filling campus. With the University’s increase in enrollment and the new, $640 million construction boom, Maginnis said he has to fight to save the trees.
“They’re building a $140 million building and here’s a tree you can go to the store and buy for $100. It’s hard to justify keeping it but we do our best as far as preservation and construction,” said Maginnis. “I’m really fortunate to have the backing of a lot of the big folks in the tower in order to champion the cause.”
Vice president of University Operations Pat Clubb has helped champion the cause. When it came time to expand the north end of Darrel K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium, she realized it would mean losing 40 trees.
“We’re saving them at all costs,” Clubb said. “The trees on the University campus are one of its greatest assets—not only financially but also in the way trees contribute to the university’s overall environment and personality.”
Clubb called for the transplanting of 16 of the 40 trees. Maginnis dug up the oaks, wrapped them with boards, lifted them from the ground with a crane, placed them on the flatbed of a semi-truck and carted them off to other parts of UT’s campus. One of the transplanted oaks can be found in the courtyard of the AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center.
“We have really good administration on board. They realize trees make such a huge impact whether for admissions retention or just the overall look of campus,” Maginnis said. “The regents realize these trees have value.”
In his appraisal of the trees on campus, Maginnis uses the Trunk Formula Method, which takes into account the size, condition and species of each tree. He estimates that the trees have a combined worth of more than $26 million.
“The trees are unique in that they are the only pieces of University infrastructure that increase in value with age,” Tim Taliaferro, columnist of the “The Alcalde,” said in his article titled “The War for the Trees.”
Maginnis expects many of the trees to outlast the life of some of the buildings on UT’s campus.
“These trees are around mid-life, they’re not even halfway through their life span, but they still have 100 years or so to give,” Maginnis said.
In recent years, drought, a freeze and windstorms blew through Austin. As a result, some of the campus’s most beloved trees were lost or damaged. But Maginnis’ successes have outshined these small failures.
“People know me as the tree guy,” Maginnis said. “Before you know it I’m everybody’s arborist. People will send me leaves in the campus mail saying, ‘hey, what’s wrong with my tree?’ There’s not a day that doesn’t go by that I don’t give some sort of advice.”
UT students, alumni, faculty and staff have come to appreciate the work it takes to maintain UT’s urban forest. Polly Husted, retired Criminal Defense Clinic Office Manager at UT’s School of Law, said she has always admired the handiwork of the “UT tree folks.”
“Whether larger or small, all trees are loved and well cared for,” Husted said. “The 40 Acres are as handsome as any grounds in the kingdom.”