Inside Tree Campus USA

“This is better than any office job,” says university forester Mike Rutkofske. “What beats going out walking on campus looking at trees?”

Rutkofske recently accepted U-M’s ninth consecutive Tree Campus USA award from the Arbor Day Foundation on behalf of the forestry team and the university’s Tree Advisory Committee.

It takes a lot more than just “looking at trees” to care for the dozens of species on the Ann Arbor campus. The forestry team is made up of six skilled arborists in F&O’s Ground Services who put our B&F strategic goal of stewardship into action every day.

Rain or shine, you’ll find them pruning, planting, inspecting trees for health, reforesting on North Campus, strategizing against disease and pests, removing snow, cleaning up after storms—and, of course, climbing up high every chance they get.

“We’re all rock climbers outside of work,” says Rutkofske, himself a certified tree climber specialist. “And we never use climbing spurs if we’re pruning a living tree for dead wood or to train it away from a building. It’s all ropes, pulleys and saddles. You learn to know your limits and the tree’s limits.”

The team has planted almost 900 young trees since 2014. They plant a variety of species to reduce the risk that a single threat like Dutch elm disease could wipe out all the trees in one area.

New planting is part of an effort to increase overall tree cover to 40% of campus. Right now it’s about 28%. “Trees basically act like giant filters for pollution,” Rutkofske explains. More tree cover means better absorption of carbon dioxide, greater insulation for buildings and more shade for campus, all of which support the university’s 2025 sustainability goals.

New planting is also part of the university’s “neutral impact policy” for construction projects. When trees are removed, the forestry team replaces them somewhere else. To protect the overall canopy level, they replace every inch of lost tree diameter.

Keeping track of all those measurements would be impossible without what Rutkofske calls “arbormetrics.” Each of the university’s 17,000 individual trees is tracked in a database. Rutkofske hopes to roll out a public version of the database later this year that will sync up with the university’s GIS system. Once it’s live, you’ll be able to spot a tree on campus and quickly search for its details using your phone’s GPS location.

Knowing them as well as he does, Rutkofske admits he has a favorite tree on campus – a European beech with purple leaves near Geddes and Washtenaw. What’s yours?