Date May 4, 2024
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Preserving historic trees amid disease, climate shifts — and saying goodbye to a treasured American elm

Brown University’s Facilities Management team branches out across campus to carefully steward and add to nearly 2,500 trees on and around College Hill in the face of threats from pests, disease and climate.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Generations of Brunonians have enjoyed Brown University’s lush canopy of trees on campus, which burst with spring buds, offer shade from summer heat, pop with colorful fall foliage and provide a perfect perch for winter snowflakes.

The University’s 155-acre campus is home to approximately 2,500 trees — and nearly 2.7 million square feet of tree canopy — that are carefully stewarded by the Facilities Management team, which also cares for more than 100 trees on city property adjacent to campus. Brown is also home to one of the largest collections of American elms in New England.

Beyond pruning and routine care, tree maintenance continues to grow in complexity in the face of a changing climate and a myriad of pests and pathogens that have been removing entire species of trees from whole regions in a few short decades, threatening some of North America’s most iconic tree species.

“We’re deeply committed to supporting our local healthy urban canopies, which help combat climate change, improve air quality and support local wildlife,” said Paul Armas, assistant vice president of facilities operations at Brown. “And the trees on our campus — particularly some of the larger and older trees in our campus canopy — are treasured by members of the community.”

We planted 15 new trees on campus last fall, and we’re trying to be proactive and stay on the front lines of the effort to preserve and grow the campus tree population.

Paul Armas Assistant Vice President of Facilities Operations
Ruth Simmons Quadrangle

The American elm is among the species under significant threat, and the historic trees on Brown’s campus have not been immune. After two years of vigorous yet ultimately unsuccessful intervention to save a prized elm near University Hall on the College Green, the tree was removed on Saturday, May 4.

“Tree removal is a last resort,” Armas said. “But sometimes it can be a losing battle in the face of climate change and disease.”

To shepherd trees through unprecedented conditions — including the hottest year on record in 2023, which included record-breaking high temperature days in Rhode Island — campus tree care and resilience continues to demand heightened attention, according to Nicholas Mol, superintendent of grounds at Brown.

“We try to stay at the cutting edge of tree care, and we’re planting hybrid trees that are designed to be more disease resistant and more climate resilient than the older varieties,” said Mol, who noted that Brown’s entire 26-person grounds crew plays a role in tree care on and around campus.

The team uses a pesticide and fungicide application treatment for trees that are impacted by pests and disease, and a pesticide injection program has been conducted on all University elm trees, which are most at risk.

“We are aggressively treating all of our American elms on campus to stave off disease and to slow disease progression for trees that are already infected with Dutch elm disease and other pathogens,” Mol said.

Person seated at base of tree
Facilities Management cares for more than 2,500 trees on and around Brown's campus.

In addition to caring for existing trees, University crews continuously plant new ones with an eye toward cultivating pest-resistant American beech, American elm and Eastern hemlock trees, Mol said. And whenever a tree needs to be removed, another one is planted.

“We planted 15 new trees on campus last fall, and we’re trying to be proactive and stay on the front lines of the effort to preserve and grow the campus tree population,” Armas said.

Brown crews also partner with the City of Providence and local neighbors to care for trees adjacent to campus.

“We prune the city trees, tend to the cobblestones around the base of trees, and we work with our neighbors to plant more trees and care for ones that are damaged,” Armas said. “Tree preservation and tree care are a major focus of our efforts.”

Farewell to a treasured American elm

Despite extensive efforts to save the ailing American elm near the northeast entrance of University Hall — including fertilization, micro-nutrient injections, increased watering, deep aeration to alleviate pressure on the roots and tests for disease — the tree likely succumbed to age and fluctuating temperatures, said Armas, who estimated that the tree is at least 80 years old.

The grounds team first noted signs of stress on the sick American elm when it lost its leaves a few years ago, before foliage season. A tree tissue test didn’t reveal a specific disease, but it became clear this spring when the tree failed to bud again that nearly two years of extensive restoration efforts had no effect.

“It’s disheartening, for sure, even while it’s not entirely unexpected,” Armas said. “And it’s one reason why it’s so essential to focus on adding to our canopy, even as we work to sustain and revitalize our existing trees.”

So tall that it towers over the adjacent four-story University Hall, the dead tree was removed to ensure that it won’t become a safety threat to passersby. Crews cordoned off the area in the days before, to begin preparing the site for removal — a complex and lengthy process for such a large tree that’s in immediate proximity to campus buildings and in a central location on the College Green with heavy foot traffic. Site restoration takes approximately five days, which includes grinding the stump, cleaning up debris and fallen branches, and grading and sodding the ground, Armas said.

In the days following removal of the American elm, crews will be able to count the tree rings and more accurately determine its age. Armas said that several large sections of the tree will be preserved for a memorial project.

“Given the risks a dead tree poses, we proactively proceeded with removal, which is particularly important ahead of Commencement and Reunion Weekend when tens of thousands of people will be walking, gathering and sitting on the College Green,” Armas said. “This is a somber moment as we say goodbye to this majestic tree that has offered its shade and beauty to many generations.”