University of Florida trees have a friend in campus forester

December 14, 2005

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Trees may not talk, but they do have a voice at the University of Florida.

Erick Smith is UF’s urban forester responsible for thousands of trees blanketing the university’s 2,000-acre Gainesville campus. He acts as resident tree expert, defender, doctor, evangelist and — on occasions when a tree is sick or dying — reluctant executioner.

“My job is to provide good information so the university can make good decisions with respect to trees,” Smith says.

On a campus filled with students adorned with creative, colorful clothing, Smith stands out. He’s the tall, rail-thin guy with the ultra-wide-brimmed straw hat, most likely spotted silently contemplating the canopy. He is the first to serve in his position, created five years ago.

UF “felt that someone on campus should be charged with caring for the tree canopy – determining how to prune, developing a maintenance schedule, helping contractors protect the trees” and so on, said Fred Cantrell, UF associate vice president of finance and administration.

Officially, Smith, who has a bachelor’s degree in forestry from UF, is based in the operations section of the Physical Plant Division, which is charged with maintaining the university’s grounds, buildings and equipment. But his jurisdiction extends across campus.

One of his duties is responding to calls from office workers who notice something amiss with trees outside their windows.

One such call, about a dying Shumard oak outside Weimer Hall, led Smith to discover a malfunctioning steam heating pipe. The call came too late to save the oak, but the pipe was repaired.

“He and a couple of other people came over and they checked things out and determined the steam was cooking the tree from the bottom up,” said Sue Wagner, director of promotions for WUFT, who spotted the ailing oak from her first-floor window.

Smith also reviews all new building plans for how they affect trees.

On several occasions, his reviews have prompted construction managers to reconfigure where they put new buildings and patios.

Planners nudged Gerson Hall, the accounting classroom building, to avoid having to cut down an old longleaf pine championed by Smith and others. And they reshaped a sunken plaza just south of Keene-Flint Hall in response to his concerns that their original plans would cause root damage to one of UF’s most majestic longleafs, a towering beauty thought to be well over 200 years old and memorialized with a faded stone installed in 1976.

Smith says the biggest threat to the campus’ trees is an underappreciated one: the installation of sewer pipes and other underground utilities. The work tears up existing roots and confines new roots within underground walls of concrete and compacted dirt, he says. So he also reviews plans for new utilities with an eye toward minimizing their impact.

He has lost a few battles. For example, his efforts to save another ancient longleaf pine that was leaning over an electrical substation came to naught after planners insisted the tree posed a serious threat to the substation.

Smith’s signature is required before anyone can cut down a tree with a trunk diameter of 3 inches or more. But his is not necessarily the final word. The fate of UF’s trees is often determined in collective fashion by the UF Lakes, Vegetation and Landscape Committee. Smith is a voting member on the committee.

“It’s a political process,” Smith says. “If I feel strongly about something, I will spend time lining up the votes in my favor.”

Smith also helps decide where to plant new trees and what species to choose. He says the Physical Plant Division plants at least five times as many trees as it cuts down annually.

All his work has made Smith intimately familiar with the trees that together represent an estimated 183 native and exotic species on campus.

His list of notables includes an ogeechee lime known to senior grounds crew members as the “Tom Petty Tree” because the aging rocker and Gainesville native planted it near Phelps Laboratory during a brief stint on the UF crew more than 30 years ago.

Smith also can identify a large sycamore known as the “moon tree” because it was grown from a seedling carried to the moon and back aboard Apollo 14. And anyone coping with a sore molar may be interested in the toothache tree, the bark of which numbs the gums.

UF is known for its enormous live oaks. But Smith says oaks likely were planted after the school’s first buildings went up in 1905. It is the remaining few longleaf pines, remnants of vast old-growth forests that once covered the Southeast, that predate the university.