Branching out: Why landscaping changes to Hill are necessary

The last tree of Maple Lane stands near the cemetery. Photo courtesy of the SHU Archives.

Recent changes at Seton Hill University have drawn attention to the trees on campus. Following extensive landscaping this spring, visitors to the Hill can now see the sports fields clearly as they pass Maura Hall on their way up the Hill. Similar landscaping efforts took place earlier in the year along the Grotto parking lot.

The person in charge of these efforts is Bill Vokes, head of the maintenance and grounds department. Vokes has worked at SHU since the 1960’s. In 2012, he hired the Van Yahres Tree Company to do a study of the trees on campus and give recommendations based on their findings.

“Trees are a sacred part of Seton Hill as far as anyone’s concerned,” said Vokes. “We’re always trying to get the longest life possible out of these trees.”

Vokes’ primary concern, however, is for the safety of the students, faculty, staff and visitors who frequent the campus. He cited an incident last fall in which a tree limb fell onto a parked vehicle, causing damage to the rear.

“What if it had been the front window while someone was in there?” he asked. “For me, it is safety first.”

Much of the need to consider safety is related to the specific varieties of trees that populate Seton Hill. In the 70’s, birch trees on campus were struck with disease and had to be cut down. Later, ash trees were hit by beetles known as ash borers. At the moment, Vokes is worried about the possibility of lanternfly insects coming to campus. According to the Tribune Review, these insects attack hardwood and are currently on a westward spread after infesting six counties in eastern Pennsylvania.

Bill Black, the SHU archivist, offered a historical perspective on the trees that Seton Hill is known for.

“When the Sisters [of Charity] bought this property, there were no trees. This was all used for cattle raising,” said Black. The early Sisters worked with the forestry department of the state to plant numerous trees. On the lawn in front of the Administration building, there remain at least four trees that were planted before the turn of the 20th century.

An old photograph shows Seton Hill students planting trees sometime in the 1930’s. Photo courtesy of the SHU Archives.

Black estimates that in the 1920’s alone, the Sisters planted between two to three thousand trees in the area that is now the employee parking lot. Much of this was fruit trees; a similar but smaller orchard once existed where Lynch Hall stands now and was known as the Alumni Grove.

Many of the age-related problems with tree maintenance have developed within the last few decades. Trees that were planted as saplings are now fully grown and many are crowded close to sidewalks or buildings. Others are simply too old and have become dangerous. One such case was the second-to-last tree that lined what once was Maple Lane, the original road that stretched from Sullivan Hall to the cemetery entrance. Today the last of those trees stands at the edge of A lot.

At one point in time, Black – along with Carol Zola, current manager of presidential relations – worked to remove 30 trees from the courtyard by the post office.

“When we started in the courtyard, people didn’t know there was a statue there,” said Black.

Even as trees are cut down, traditions such as the junior class tree planting ceremony help to repopulate the campus’ woodlands. The creation of a small grove of fruit trees is underway on the hill in the Saint Mary’s cul-de-sac.

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