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Tree Campus USA Recognizes Green Thumbs

University Business, June 2011
Planting trees is an easy way to get students involved in their campus' green initiatives, and at The University of Texas at Austin, 90 percent of trees are planted with student help.

It doesn’t get greener than planting trees, and thanks to the Arbor Day Foundation’s Tree Campus USA program, colleges and universities are being recognized for their dedication to the most literal translation of going green.

The program has grown from recognizing 29 institutions in 2008 to 115 institutions in 2010. Mary Widhelm, Tree Campus USA program coordinator, says that to be considered, institutions must prove they have the following five standards in place: a tree advisory committee, a tree care plan, dedicated annual expenditures, an Arbor Day observance, and a service learning project. “We really believed in the need to foster that next generation of environmental stewards,” she shares.

Once recognized, institutions must reapply each year and revise their Arbor Day observance and care plan every four years, a process that Widhelm says keeps the program sustainable. “We didn’t want it to be a one-and-done thing where people could do a really good job and just forget about it.”

For someone like Larry Maginnis, assistant manager of forestry and projects at The University of Texas at Austin, a program like Tree Campus USA helps validate his work. He and his staff care for the 4,817 trees located on the 450-acre urban campus, helping ensure physical growth does not come at a cost to the landscape and trees. “It’s kind of a badge of honor,” he says. “Before this program came along, there was essentially nothing out there for campus foresters to have a way of benchmarking if what they were doing was right or wrong.”

Having a plan and caring for the trees isn’t enough to be named a tree campus, though. Student involvement is a major component, and at UT Austin, 90 percent of new trees are planted with student help (part of an active tree planting campaign that started in 2004). Maginnis is especially fond of the Arbor Day plantings he helps students organize, and calls that day “a Christmas, New Year’s, and 4th of July all wrapped into one for a guy like me whose job is to wake up every morning and take care of trees.”

Tree campus schools have gotten innovative since the program’s inception, fostering new ways to get students involved. At Texas A&M University, more than 1,100 students attended a replant day last October, planting 367 trees. Architecture students at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas installed a shady garden in an unused courtyard, and at Tulane University (La.), students planted trees around a playground in downtown New Orleans in conjunction with the nonprofit KaBOOM!.

Maginnis says planting a tree is a great way for students to have an impact on their campus. “They go out and conquer the world and come back and boom, they’ve left their mark,” he says. “Buildings come and go, but trees have a tendency to stick around.”

For more information or to apply to become a tree campus, visit --Kristen Domonell