Jim Carse

Visitors pass by Tree No. 618 on the South Mall on Sunday afternoon. Events such as Holi, which are traditionally held on the South Mall, have recently been relocated due to concerns about the health of this and other nearby trees.


Ethan Oblak | Daily Texan Staff

Photo Credit: Ethan Oblak | Daily Texan Staff

Despite University efforts to improve its health, a tree on the South Mall will be removed after contracting two different diseases within the last year.

Jim Carse, assistant manager of Urban Forestry, said he first noticed that Tree No. 618 — the third tree on the right when facing the Texas Capitol — had issues in January 2013. The tree had contracted hypoxylon, a fungal disease. In addition, soil testing results from the base of the tree came back positive for phytophthora, a root rot.

“The fungus is ever present in the tree … but it only activates when the tree is under stress, usually due to low moisture levels in the tree,” Carse said. “Because of the drought for the past three to four years and because a lot of the compaction and site issues that have been happening over the past few decades, that tree was the first to succumb to some of the issues.”

The University has spent approximately $3,500 on efforts to save the tree, according to Carse. While this tree won’t be able to be completely saved, Carse said the University has taken proactive efforts on the rest of the lawn.

“We’re more looking to the site as a whole now,” Carse said. “We started to take some different approaches to the South Mall, such as adding mulch [and] doing some other maintenance to improve the soil quality to take better care of the turf.”

For many years, the turf of the lawn has been replaced in the spring leading up to the annual commencement ceremony, but it won’t be replaced this year, according to Carse, who Carse said this practice is detrimental to the trees because the work disturbs the soil and tree roots.

In order to let the ground heal, Carse said he and his team have been working with the Office of Student Affairs to keep larger events off the South Mall, allowing them to replace the grass less often — though commencement will still be on the lawn. Events such as Holi — the Hindu festival of colors celebrating the arrival of spring — had to relocate to the LBJ Lawn.

“We were notified from the University to our organization that South Mall was off limits,” said Abhi Sreerama, Holi festival chair and UT alumnus.

Even though large events are not being scheduled on the lawn, Carse said students are still welcome to use the lawn daily,

“It’s not off limits for informal day-to-day use,” Carse said. “It’s the students’ area, [and] it’s for them to use, and we don’t want to take that away. We’re trying to work with groups to find alternate locations that can suit their event just as well [but] without the iconic view.”

Carse has worked with the Dean of Students office to educate people about the issues the lawn is facing and why it’s necessary to let the ground heal.

“We’re not making that decision of ‘you can or cannot use this space,’ but we’re trying to support our community,” said Sara Lestrange, communications manager for Office of the Dean of Students. “We’re part of a team — the University — trying to make sure the space continues to thrive.”

Jim Carse, The University's urban forester, and Michael Embesi, Arborist of the city of Austin, work to preserve trees by relocationg them for construction sites. The two often rely on eachother's professional opinions when working on projects. 

Photo Credit: Lauren Ussery | Daily Texan Staff

Jim Carse went from climbing trees as a Boy Scout to preserving and moving trees as the University’s assistant manager of urban forestry. 

With his team of four arborists, Carse helps manage and maintain the trees on the main campus as well as on several other UT properties, such as the Pickle Research Campus. 

“It’s a fun job,” Carse said. “I like working with the students and teaching people about trees. I’ve always loved that.” 

Carse is currently involved in the process of transporting 12 trees from the grounds where the Dell Medical School will stand in 2016. 

“There are a lot of trees that exist there now that need to either be cut down or moved, and we’ve chosen to move as many as we can,” Carse said.

Roughly 50 trees have been relocated throughout campus in the past 15 years, according to Carse. Each of the 12 trees being moved will stay on campus.

“It’s a big process to move big trees,” Carse said. “But the University is and has been very dedicated, both with support and funding, to try and save trees, so we’re excited about it.” 

A crew excavates the trees, which are supported by metal pipes and lifted by crane onto a truck for transportation. Carse said he is able to hire private companies to help with tree maintenance, if necessary. 

“We have about 5,000 trees on main campus,” Carse said. “We hire out contractors to do some of our bigger pruning jobs.” 

Since the University is state-owned property, the City of Austin’s tree ordinances do not apply to trees on campus, but Carse said the University still follows the ordinances as closely as possible. 

“We want to be a good example to our neighbors and to the community,” Carse said. “That’s why the University has kind of gone out of its way to preserve some of these big trees.” 

Michael Embesi, the City of Austin arborist, manages trees that stand outside campus but within Austin. Embesi said he works closely with Carse when trees on the edges of campus are in question.

“There are times that we share responsibilities on certain projects, and there are times that we rely on each other for our professional opinions,” Embesi said. “We’ll call one another in those situations.” 

According to Embesi, Austin stands out among other cities for its commitment to preserving trees. 

“I’m very honored to work in a city that holds such high value to the natural environment,” Embesi said. 

Embesi works with other arborists to issue permits to development companies and residents. These permits allow tree removal or construction near a specific tree.

“The city arborist is required to assess impacts to [Austin’s] trees, which could include the outright removal of the tree, or it could include requests to build close to that tree,” Embesi said. 

Trees offer numerous social and environmental benefits, according to Embesi. 

“Trees benefit us environmentally, but they also bring an incredible value to us socially because of that comfort level that those trees bring to our communities,” Embesi said.

The University of Texas loves its squirrels. Sciurus niger, commonly known as the fox squirrel, is nearly as ubiquitous on campus as students themselves. They are polarizing creatures. Some students eagerly offer the squirrels food, hoping for a nibble and perhaps a photo-op, while others not-so-subtly circumvent the bushy-tailed beasts en route to class. Whatever your method, they’re impossible to ignore.

Squirrel overpopulation is not a problem unique to the UT campus, but our affinity for them is particularly outspoken. They have become creatures of legend. Certain bus drivers and construction workers are known to be regular squirrel-feeders. The albino squirrels in particular are said to bring good luck; they even have their own Preservation Society, dedicated to serving the interests of “the Albino squirrels in particular, but all squirrels in general, at The University of Texas at Austin.” One friend recounted an episode from last May in which an especially zealous squirrel-lover lay in front of Hogg Lecture Hall covered in acorns, putting more faith in the white rodent’s charms than his own brain for his upcoming finals.

Not everyone appreciates the squirrels as much. I spoke with Jim Carse, UT’s assistant manager of Urban Forestry and self-styled “Campus Lorax,” about his struggles with the species. According to Carse, squirrels cause significant damage to campus trees by chewing away strips of bark in a process known as girdling. Girdling removes phloem, the vascular tissue responsible for transporting nutrients from leaves to roots, and can ultimately kill the trees. Carse says that UT’s live oaks have been hit especially hard lately.

By providing the squirrels with free food, we’ve created an out-of-control squirrel population that the environment can’t sustain. As we speak, the squirrels are launching a multi-pronged offensive against the campus: diggers scratch through the soil and damage irrigation lines, while climbers find their way onto roofs and into attics. Carse says that trapping and relocation measures are in the works.

In addition to endangering the campus infrastructure, spoiled squirrels often become aggressive, posing a health risk to students. They’re potential carriers for rabies, and they frequently carry fleas that in turn may harbor encephalitis and lyme disease. The problem goes the other way, too. Artificial diets introduced by human feeders can lead squirrels to develop potentially fatal health complications. Let’s be honest: when you feed a squirrel a hot Cheeto, nobody wins.

Measures to curb the amount of wildlife feeding on campus are clearly necessary. Carin Peterson, training and outreach coordinator for Environmental Health and Safety at UT, says that officials have approached squirrel feeders from a polite, informative standpoint, but they lack the authority to take disciplinary measures. The squirrel onslaught, no matter how cute or hilarious, demands more serious attention.

Disincentives, like penalties for frequent high-volume feeding offenses, would almost certainly help control squirrel numbers, saving the university money on irrigation and other repairs. UT might also consider a publicity campaign to raise awareness about the negative consequences of squirrel overpopulation.

Squirrels of all colors have developed — quite literally — considerable gravity when it comes to campus culture. But don’t be tricked into succumbing to their aggressive, if belabored, demands. Feeding squirrels puts trees, students, and the squirrels themselves at a disadvantage. Besides, I can hardly think of an omen more foreboding for the University than to have the albino squirrel die of diabetes or, even worse, be trapped by Facilities Services and released in College Station.

Walters is a Plan II junior from Houston.