Online Database Keeps Tabs on Health, History of Thousands of Campus Trees

 CUTLINE: Todd Beals poses with a sawtooth oak, also known as a Carruthers oak, outside Bartlett Hall. The tree was a gift of the Stockbridge School of Agriculture Class of 1938.
Todd Beals poses with a sawtooth oak, also known as a Carruthers oak, outside Bartlett Hall. The tree was a gift of the Stockbridge School of Agriculture Class of 1938.
A display of campus trees from the Web application created by Todd Beals.
A display of campus trees from the Web application created by Todd Beals.

It’s getting a lot easier to follow the health and value of the thousands of trees that make up the Frank A. Waugh Arboretum in and around the core of campus.

For decades, various trees have had small plaques, visible to passers-by, that identify them by common and botanical name, but now a searchable website catalogs about 8,000 “actively managed” trees that make up the Waugh Arboretum, mostly in the campus core, but also at sites like the Chancellor’s House property.

A query tool can locate trees by name, health history, canopy size, champion points (a way of rating trees within species by size), historic value and more. The information is displayed graphically and appears in a spreadsheet as well.

The person driving this ordering of data is Todd Beals, a recent Stockbridge School of Agriculture graduate who now works for the Physical Plant.

Beals developed the ArcGIS Online (AGOL) Web application, while still a graduate student. He calls it “a great outdoor textbook that anybody can access.”

Well, almost anybody. Built using the robust ArcGIS software, the site is rich in information, but it may not give up that information without what Beals understatedly calls, “a good bit of noodling.” But it is a powerful tool for students, teachers and the Physical Plant staff that cares for the trees.

The inventory of individual trees can be displayed on a campus map by location, species and common name. Relative canopy sizes are easy to see, as well as measure precisely in English or metric units.

When workers find a tree with a problem, they can check the database to see whether it has faced a similar problem in the past and whether it was pruned or treated for insect and fungal pathogens.

In planning for construction, the Physical Plant can use the database to work with contractors to limit soil compaction around trees and to make sure, for example, that solar panels are not placed where a shade tree will interfere.

It’s a tool that helps both large-scale urban forestry planning and individual trees. “We try to increase the species diversity and at the same time are careful where we plant to preserve historic, commemorative and champion trees,” Beals said.

Champion trees are the biggest of their kind, based on a formula that includes circumference, height and spread.

The Japanese elm, Ulmus japonica, on the south side of South College, which is being preserved through the South College renovation, is the both the oldest and largest on American soil. It was brought to campus from Japan in 1890 by William Penn Brooks, who would later be 10th president of the Massachusetts Agricultural College. It was the first such tree brought to this country.

In fact, it meets criteria for three classes of special trees: champion, historical and commemorative, Beals said.

Each tree has a photo in the database, although the photos are not yet visible in the Web application. According to Beals, the next step in expanding the database is to have students take photos of the trees throughout the seasons. Among the many uses of the new layer of information would be comparing a tree’s natural-year cycles or phenology and whether they are being affected by climate change.

Beals has an Associate of Science degree in arboriculture from the Stockbridge School of Agriculture, a Bachelor of Science degree in community forestry and a Master of Science degree in urban sustainability from the University.

He is a Massachusetts Certified Arborist and an International Society of Arboriculture Certified Arborist.

So it should be no surprise the database also supports the campus management plan monitoring ash trees for tell-tale signs of the invasive emerald ash borer (EAB).

There are relatively few ash trees on campus – about 175 – and many carry ash borer awareness signs from the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources. The trees are closely watched so they can be treated or removed if necessary.

Someone who wished to see all the campus ash trees could create a walking tour using the Web application on a smartphone or personal computer. Or likewise, they could chart champion trees, class gift trees or those suffering a certain disease.

People often take trees for granted, believing they have little value, Beals said. “I hope to help remove that attitude from people.”

New signs are appearing on individual trees around campus explaining their value, beyond their beauty. Beals said the signs were made using the free online calculation tool i-Tree Design created by the USDA Forest Service that estimates benefits from storm water intercepted, energy saved by shade in the summer and wind protection in winter and also replacement value.

A sugar maple, Acer saccharum, near Munson Hall is reported to sequester or avoid 780 pounds of carbon per year; intercept 3,906 gallons of storm water and save 146 kilowatt-hours of energy. Total value: $33,900.

“The real reason I put the Web application together is education,” Beals said. “There is a lot a value inherent in trees that people tend to lose sight off. There is a lot of history on this campus.”

The Waugh Arboretum, established in 1944, commemorates Frank A. Waugh, the first head of what is now the University’s landscape architecture department.

The campus trees form the arboretum and include a number of rare trees.

To learn more about the Waugh Arboretum Web application or any of the trees on campus and receive a free tree seedling – either a sugar maple, an eastern redbud or a river birch – visit Beals and his fellow tree enthusiasts at the Campus Center in the main hallway every Friday during April from 10 a.m-3 p.m.

The seedling giveaway is to promote the Arbor Day celebration scheduled to take place on April 29. On this day campus professionals have planned a variety of activities including a guided tree walk around the campus, a tree pathology identification walk, the planting of the 2016 class tree, the measuring and designation of a new champion tree, and a tree climbing demonstration performed by two certified arborists, among other things. Visit Beals in the campus to learn more about this celebration.