Calvin College gains Tree Campus USA Designation

If you sit down for a few minutes with English professor emeritus George Harper, you are sure to learn a little bit about the trees on Calvin’s campus.

He’ll tell you about how 40 years ago, the campus was covered with elm trees and about the disease—Elm Blight—that quickly took them all out.

He’ll tell you about how a building project was modified in order to save the 200-plus, year-old oak, the campus’ oldest tree.

And, he’ll tell you about his favorite tree on Calvin’s campus—the American Sycamore:

“They are very handsome trees …. They have the three-or four-colored bark, almost white to dark brown, long strips,” said Harper.

The reason Harper is looked at as an authority on Calvin’s trees is his long history with the 166-acres of campus—once farmland owned by wealthy business owner J.C. Miller. Harper worked on Miller’s property. He got to know the treescape pretty well.

“He [Harper], for a long-time, has been a strong advocate for protecting trees on campus and passing along some of those stories,” said Dave Warners, professor of biology.

Passing on his passion
Harper has also passed the torch. Warners, a former student of Harper’s, represents the next generation of Calvin professors and staff that are looking after Calvin’s trees. So does Bob Speelman, a certified arborist and the college’s supervisor of landscape operations. The two are part of the Campus Tree Advisory Committee, which worked hard at taking the necessary steps to nominate the college for the Arbor Day Foundation’s Tree Campus USA.

Earlier this month, Calvin became just the third college in the state of Michigan to earn that distinction.

“This is a great recognition with a national organization to show that we care and we have our act together in caring for campus trees,” said Speelman. “It certainly shows that not only I, but our students, faculty and administrators respect tree care as well.”

Tree Campus USA is a national program created in 2008 to honor colleges and universities for effective campus forest management and for engaging staff and students in conservation goals.

To be recognized as a tree campus, the college had to meet Tree Campus USA’s five standards for sustainable campus forestry: Maintaining a tree advisory committee, having a campus tree-care plan, dedicating annual expenditures toward trees, observing Arbor Day and holding service-learning projects related to trees for students.

“A landscape that includes numerous trees contributes many environmental services to a community,” said Warners. “Besides decreasing energy needs, processing stormwater and enhancing property values and biodiversity, there are some really interesting things coming out in the area of ecopsychology, one being that learning is promoted when there’s a healthy natural environment in which the learning takes place.”

Working as a community
Warners is one of many members of the Calvin community who has had a hand in helping the college maintain a healthy natural environment on campus. In recent years, he has worked with geography, geology and environmental studies professor Jason Van Horn and their students in creating a tree map, a detailed inventory of all 3,500-plus trees on-campus.

Warners is also a member of the Plaster Creek Stewards, a group of Calvin College faculty, staff and students who work with local schools, churches and community partners in restoring the health and beauty of the Plaster Creek Watershed. Some of their restoration work also includes planting trees.

“This is very consistent with our commitment to stewardship, that we will not only pay attention to the people we are living with, but also to the places where we live and the other creatures with whom we share these places,” said Warners.

Making the grade
The care that the Calvin community continues to give toward the trees on campus is something that Harper thinks is important and something that has been done well. If he were to grade the college’s efforts he said he’d give it an A- or a B+.

“Calvin is one of the few green places that has a biblical aspect to it—not to subdue the earth, but to manage it, do it right,” said Harper.

At the age of 89, Harper still makes his way to campus a couple of times a week and once in a while he’ll stop into Warners’ office and talk: trees.

“He’s sort of a Lorax figure on campus,” said Warners.

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