Assistant Professor of Biology Chris Bickford created a new challenge for his conservation biology class while they were in the field last year: Find the near-threatened pileated woodpecker. Splitting into small groups, the class dispersed, keeping eye and ear out for the red-headed, black-bodied, foot-tall birds known for their shrieking, whining calls. Suddenly, one appeared. Then another. The students, excited, snapped pictures for their peers and their professor.
“They’re not diminutive creatures,” Bickford said. “Once you see one, you’ll see them with pretty great frequency.”
Birdwatchers may have more difficulty spotting the pileated woodpecker now. This July, the College removed 50 ash trees infected with the emerald ash borer — a beetle species favored by the birds — because they were becoming increasingly brittle and likely to collapse. Though the birds can find other food and shelter in forests surrounding Kenyon, the trees’ destruction has prompted an investigation into refining the campus’s long-term forest management plan.
The College began evaluating the ash trees earlier this year, concerned about their worsening condition. Like other ash trees throughout Ohio, those on campus were suffering from borers creating intricate galleries under tree bark that disrupt the flow of nutrients and water through the tree. This disruption can make the tree “starve to death,” according to Grounds Manager Steven Vaden.
The College initially considered using pesticides to kill the borers and save the trees, but Vaden said the costs of insecticide — as well as its impact on the environment — could create more problems than solutions.
“Given how many trees we had, it wasn’t economically feasible to try to treat every tree on campus,” he said. “When the trees reach a point where you’re starting to see damage, it’s too late.”
Instead, the College is exploring options to replace the ash trees with maple or oak trees. The remaining ash trees that have managed to escape the borers could also help propagate a resistant tree with the aid of an outside nursery or Ohio State University’s extension services.
“Unfortunately, it looks like ash trees might just be a species that can’t live in Ohio with the ash borer,” Environmental Campus Organization (ECO) Co-President Erin Keleske ’18 said. “It’s one or the other. It’s never going to work.”
In addition to exploring alternative tree-planting options, the College has used the ash trees’ destruction as a jumping-off point for improving local forest management.
This semester, the Office of Development will partner with a tree advisory committee to develop a fund channeling specified alumni funds into tree-planting projects. The committee is required for Kenyon to maintain its Tree Campus USA status (a title recognizing college campuses that effectively manage trees), and it gathers multiple times per year to discuss the College’s environmental policies.
Under the fund, groundworkers at Kenyon could identify areas on campus where old trees would likely be destroyed in the next few years. Then, they could plant a sapling nearby so that when an old tree was removed, a new plant would have already taken its place.
This new policy would accomplish the initiatives proposed in a letter penned to President Sean Decatur this summer responding to the ash trees’ destruction. At the time, the College did not have a plan in place to plant trees prematurely. The letter, which included signatures from 244 students, staff and professors, expressed support for a plan of this type.
“We understand that the college policy of replacing a lost tree with a similar sapling would be considered eminently reasonable in most places and during most times,” the letter reads. “That being said, Kenyon is not ‘most places’ and the timing to invest in our future environment is truly pivotal.”
“As students, environmentalists and tree-lovers on campus, we want to see that each tree needing to be taken down isn’t replaced by one sapling, but is replaced by several healthy trees that have been growing for years,” said Matt Meyers ’17, a signer of the letter and member of ECO and the tree advisory committee.
The College maintains a policy for replacing trees that are removed or lost to weather events, according to Heithaus, and maintenance services have a budget for caring for sick trees or for trimming trees. Funds to proactively plant trees ahead of loss are not currently in the budget.
The tree-advisory committee will explore crafting this new budget at its next meeting this month. Options for receiving money include creating a new fund or carving out a piece of the existing Green Giving Fund, which channels money toward sustainable campus programs.
In the meantime, the pileated woodpecker — and its recently removed trees — will continue to serve as a reminder of the transformations not just to the ash tree family, but also to Kenyon’s greater environmental landscape.
“We’re looking at a major shift in these eastern deciduous forests,” Bickford said. “This is a major event, and one that is human-caused. We introduced [the borer], and now we’re going to have to deal with the consequences.”