The Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation and the Facilities Department have completed a collaborative inventory and analysis of more than 10,000 landscape trees spread out across 900 acres of the Virginia Tech campus.
The project provides crucial information as Virginia Tech moves forward with its 2018 Campus Master Plan and will be a useful resource in future development initiatives.
“In planning and managing urban forests, information is essential,” said Eric Wiseman, associate professor of urban forestry in the College of Natural Resources and Environment. “There is a saying in natural resource management that you have to understand the resource before you can manage it, and that’s where this inventory comes into place. It provides a baseline of information that allows Virginia Tech to evaluate the quality and composition of our campus forests across a wide range of criteria.”
Wiseman has been integral in motivating the university to invest resources in the project. The result is a comprehensive database in which almost all campus trees have been identified, plotted, photographed, measured, and evaluated for condition and maintenance needs.
A key finding of the campus inventory report estimates that the replacement value of all inventoried trees is $30.6 million. This appraisal of Virginia Tech’s urban forest as a capital asset is a crucial motivator for maintaining and preserving trees, but only scratches the surface in capturing the full impact of having a healthy urban forest on the campus.
“Functionality — a crucial element to urban forests — is understanding what we can do to make trees more beneficial to people,” Wiseman said. “We have a walkable campus and want to encourage students and staff to walk to move around our campus. In order to make that a possibility, people need shady, attractive spaces to walk in.”
In addition to providing comfortable outdoor spaces and aesthetic and visual benefits, campus trees play an important role in reducing operational costs for the university by keeping buildings cool and mitigating runoff during high-volume storms. They also play an important role in Virginia Tech’s wider commitment to campus sustainability efforts.
Much of the legwork for the project was done by Peter Stewart, a graduate student with 10 years of experience as an arborist. Through dedicated funding from the Facilities Department, Stewart documented approximately 8,500 trees from August 2017 to March 2018. Those trees were combined with a 2012 inventory of the old-growth forest near Lane Stadium to complete the campus inventory.
“Working on this project was challenging and rewarding,” Stewart said. “I appreciated being able to draw on the expertise of the Facilities Department’s Office of University Planning and GIS unit, and the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation — for example, for help in identifying unfamiliar tree species or mapping out planning districts in GIS.”
For Stewart, who is working toward a master of science in forestry, participating in this project allowed him to bring his classroom studies to bear on a tangible project. “I’m here at Virginia Tech working towards a career in urban forestry, building on my background as an arborist,” he said. “For me personally, the tree inventory provided a useful bridge from my previous experience to academic and research work.”
Jack Rosenberger, the Office of University Planning’s landscape architect, said that the campus tree inventory will prove useful in the university’s decision-making processes concerning construction and landscaping.
“With accurate data, we can overlay our tree map on proposed designs early in the process to help with decisions like building location and orientation, and site plan features so we don’t remove valuable trees,” Rosenberger explained. “We hope this will be a tool we can use to understand the dollar value of trees on campus as well as the ecological systems benefits and the human health benefits of our trees.”
In addition to offering suggestions about where the university can improve tree canopy coverage, the report outlines which species tend to thrive on the increasingly urbanized campus and how future planning for tree planting can maximize species diversity and resilience. To meet these goals, the university is moving forward with the hiring of a campus arborist to supervise decision-making about this crucial resource.
While Wiseman believes that the campus tree inventory will be a key resource for campus planning projects for years to come, he noted that the information in the inventory is already being utilized by campus planners.
“A specific example that the university is currently working on is routing the western perimeter road that will run between the Corporate Research Center and Price’s Fork Road, more or less paralleling Route 460 West,” Wiseman said. “There are a lot of high-quality trees along that route, and having those trees inventoried has been helpful in trying to figure out how to best meander the roadway through that area.”
Virginia Tech’s 2018 Campus Master Plan takes into consideration ways to expand the university’s footprint while preserving the character and traditions of the main campus. Reforestation and its impact on the environment, learning, and the community as a whole is a prominent theme throughout the plan. The tree inventory will remain a useful tool in facilitating effective growth while maintaining and enriching the forest resources that are a vital part of the campus experience.