Tom Eliseuson and Madison Holden in ballcaps examining an elm tree on Pitt campus
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Duo’s Mission: Count Each Tree on Campus

  • Students
  • Osher Lifelong Learning Institute
  • Department of Biological Sciences

Equipped with a clipboard, measuring tape and a smartphone, Pitt student Tom Eliseuson strolls the University’s Pittsburgh campus several afternoons each week, weather permitting; pausing here and there to pick up a leaf, an acorn, a pinecone.

He squints up into the treetops, moves in close to examine bark and low-hanging branches, and occasionally pulls out a pocket knife to extract a small divot of tree trunk — all to aid in his arboreal sleuthing.

Lest he be mistaken for a shady character, Eliseuson sports a Pitt ballcap emblazoned with the words “Tree Inventory” when he ventures out to count Pitt’s trees wherever they may be — on lawns, steep slopes or even patio planters

Eliseuson stops at each tree, taking note of their species and health, using apps to pinpoint each one’s location and height; stretching out a tape to measure their diameter — a measurement he’ll use to extrapolate each tree’s age.

It’s important work; a first step in accounting for every tree on campus.

A Pitt-specific tree inventory is the first step in tracking progress toward the Pitt Sustainability Plan goal of increasing the tree canopy 50 percent by 2030.

His notes are handed off to his partner, Madison Holden, who enters his carefully scribed notes from the clipboard to an interactive map and database that will be used to view and analyze the growing tree inventory.

Eliseuson, a retired geophysicist, attends Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, which hosts classes for students age 50 and older. Holden is a third-year biology major who’s carrying minors in chemistry, secondary education and religious studies, and working as a sustainability intern in the Office of Facilities Management.

A demanding schedule prevents Holden from joining Eliseuson on most of his forays into the field, but they meet regularly to review notes and data. Despite their disparate schedules, together they’re creating an invaluable resource for campus sustainability.

One might not expect to find many trees on an urban university campus but Holden and Eliseuson estimate they’ll have documented some 2,500 trees by the time they finish their work this spring.

No hedging, either. The greenery must measure up and shrubs don’t count. Unless it’s a sapling, it needs to be “tree-sized, 15-20 feet tall,” Eliseuson said.

“A Pitt-specific tree inventory is the first step in tracking progress toward the Pitt Sustainability Plan goal of increasing the tree canopy 50 percent by 2030,” said Director of Sustainability Aurora Sharrard. “And, in conjunction with similar plan goals to reduce impervious surfaces by 20 percent and replace 15 percent of lawn with indigenous and adapted plants, the baseline also will help us set effective strategies for more holistic water management on campus.” 

In addition, their work will provide data for on-campus biological and environmental science research, and inform Facilities Management’s choices in designing new landscapes, said Rich Heller, senior manager of electrical utilities and energy initiatives in Facilities Management.

The inventory will note rare specimens that should be protected, and will identify diseased or dying trees in need of treatment or removal, Heller said. The team’s work could identify any invasive tree species that should be targeted for replacement with indigenous varieties. It also could lay the groundwork for someday having the campus recognized nationally for its care for trees.

Said Holden, “Becoming a designated member of The Arbor Day Foundation’s Tree Campus USA program will allow the University of Pittsburgh to create added accountability in our tree care. With 18 other Pennsylvania institutions participating in the program, I think that joining would be a fantastic next step in Pitt’s pledge to a more sustainable future."

Canopy count

Holden and Eliseuson began their work in summer, not long after Eliseuson, who counts tree ID as a hobby, arrived on campus and inquired whether Pitt had a tree inventory.

Heller, who found there was no comprehensive record of Pitt’s campus trees, was only too happy to accept Eliseuson’s unexpected offer and connect him with Holden to launch the project.

“Tom’s call was heaven-sent. Our recent sustainability commitments compelled us to quantify our tree canopy and identify our invasive trees. We were struggling to fill these tall orders until Tom’s volunteerism came to the rescue.  I couldn’t say yes fast enough,” he said.

Eliseuson’s unusual hobby is based in a love of learning, curiosity and an affinity for the outdoors. He’s studied formally and on his own to develop his skills over the years. He’s created inventories at botanic gardens and golf courses, parlaying his work for free play on the course.

Holden, who had some tree inventory experience through previous coursework, took on the tree inventory task as part of the sustainability student work in Facilities Management. The project is more than just part of the job, said Eliseuson, commending his partner’s dedication to the work. “It’s clear that Madison really values this project.”

Together, they are creating a lasting legacy, Heller said.

“I am so grateful for students like Madison and Tom who are here not only to get an education at Pitt, but also to contribute while they’re here,” he said. “This valuable resource will benefit the campus and the community for years to come.”

What trees are these?

Large or small, noteworthy or not, the trees on Pitt’s 132-acre campus provide shade, beauty and habitat for birds and other wildlife. They improve air quality, reduce carbon dioxide, absorb stormwater runoff and contribute to energy savings.

Several native species are among the largest trees on campus, including an American elm, yellow buckeye and northern red oak on the Pittsburgh campus' Cathedral of Learning lawn and a black cherry and Kentucky coffeetree near Pitt’s Falk School.

Many campus trees are older than the Cathedral of Learning and some even predate the University’s arrival in Oakland in 1909 from its prior home in the city’s Observatory Hill neighborhood. Others — like the red maples planted in honor of Nobel Laureate and Pitt alumna Wangari Maathai and the white oak planted to commemorate the launch of the Pitt sustainability plan — were added to the Cathedral of Learning lawn within the past five years.

Perhaps appropriately, a cluster of Japanese pagoda trees, commonly called scholar trees, thrive in the shadow of the Cathedral of Learning. Nearby are a pair of dawn redwoods — an ancient form of deciduous conifer once believed to be extinct; and even a sapling descended from the apple tree reputed to have inspired Sir Isaac Newton’s ruminations on the nature of gravity — a gift bestowed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology on its former director, now Pitt Chancellor Patrick Gallagher.


— Kimberly K. Barlow