Arborists Help Trees Transform University into Place Made for Shade
Frank Rodriguez loves nothing better than being outdoors. As an arborist at The University of Texas at Dallas, he’s found his niche tending majestic live oak, Chinese pistache and chinquapin oak trees.
“I like all the things trees do. They filter air; they give shade; they retain water; they heal themselves. I’m just fascinated by them,” Rodriguez said.
Known by his facilities management colleagues for his fearless tree-climbing, Rodriguez decided seven years ago to pursue his certification as an arborist so he could focus on caring for the 6,800 trees that beautify the campus and enrich its environment.
The results don’t just happen on their own. Rodriguez works behind the scenes with fellow arborist Sam Eicke to select drought-resistant trees; oversee their planting and pruning; strategize about stormwater management and soil biology; diagnose problems and identify disease; determine applications for pests; and assess fall hazards for diseased or dying trees.
“I have touched every tree on campus, in one way or another,” Rodriguez said.
Anyone who compares photos of campus taken years ago and today knows there are a lot more trees to touch now. Rodriguez and his crew have helped transform the campus into a park-like environment in the midst of the last decade’s significant increase in classroom, lab and office space.
UT Dallas arborist Frank Rodriguez takes great pride in caring for the University's trees. “I have touched every tree on campus, in one way or another,” he said.
They tracked the University’s campus enhancement project, and their work has helped earn UT Dallas the Tree Campus USA designation for its commitment to establishing a strong tree maintenance and management program.
“This university has made major investments in the campus landscape, and trees are a huge part of this,” said Rick Dempsey, associate vice president for facilities management. “They need just as much care and support as our buildings and infrastructure. Frank and his team are doing a great job in protecting these valuable resources.”
The University also draws student participation in tree-related projects: The Office of Sustainability and the Office of Student Volunteerism organize tree-planting events and service learning events with community partners.
Arborists say that without the trees, UT Dallas would be its own heat island: acres of concrete baked by the Texas sun to temperatures much hotter than the air. And as the trees mature, the work doesn’t just double for arborists; it quadruples because of the numerous branches sprouting on each tree.
It’s worth it to maintain them all, Rodriguez said, because they conserve energy, provide shade, control erosion and improve air quality by filtering pollutants.
Sprucing Up Campus
Gary Cocke, associate director for energy conservation and sustainability, said trees add value to the University’s prairie habitat and provide an eco-covering for campus.
An Eastern red cedar planted as a sapling years ago is now thriving near the UT Dallas Police building.
“We want to be as environmentally responsible as we can be while providing beauty for campus,” Cocke said. “Trees have softened the campus from solid concrete to an inviting and natural environment. I just can’t imagine the campus without trees.”
UT Dallas is so committed to maintaining its natural resources that for every diseased or dying tree that is removed, the University plants two healthy ones.
Digital technology helps staff keep up with the trees. Every tree with a diameter of at least 4 inches is tagged with a specific GPS location and a number to streamline communication about which trees need maintenance.
Software program ArborPro maps the location of particular trees on campus and provides information on their species, location, size, height and canopy measurement.
Arborists have expanded the variety of trees on campus, Eicke said. Years ago, it was mostly live oaks and red oaks. Today, the diversity of 65 species includes pecans, lacebark elms and live cedar elms.
The diversity adds more than visual interest, Eicke said.
“We’re planting smarter for the region,” he said. “You want to diversify to stop the progression of disease. Every tree has its own pest.”
In other words, what kills an evergreen tree will leave an elm untouched. Planting the same type of tree could result in large swaths of trees dying at once.
“This university has made major investments in the campus landscape, and trees are a huge part of this. They need just as much care and support as our buildings and infrastructure. Frank and his team are doing a great job in protecting these valuable resources.”
On a fast-growing campus, arborists have their work cut out as they keep pace with construction. They routinely transplant trees from construction zones to other areas of campus, including eight chinquapin oaks from the Engineering and Computer Science West building site. They relocated young trees with a 1-inch diameter to the entrance of parking Lot R when construction began on the Student Services Building; the trees are now thriving at 6 inches wide. And they fertilized and pruned trees near the old tennis courts before construction began for the Davidson-Gundy Alumni Center.
Working around a student population also can be tricky. Even routine maintenance, like pruning, requires having fall zones around the area.
“We try to shoot for a window when there aren’t so many students on campus,” Eicke said.
Arborists work year-round, and their tasks are governed by seasons. In fall, trees are planted; winter is pruning time; summer equals maintenance. When trees are pruned or removed, a contractor turns the wood into mulch that crews reuse throughout campus.
As the trees on campus mature, Rodriguez wants to continue to grow in his profession. He and Eicke take continuing education classes to help manage the UT Dallas tree populations as part of the urban infrastructure.
“Managing an urban forest requires an understanding of planning and development. We want to take it to the next level,” Rodriguez said.
Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].