American elm tree lives on after its removal at Penn State Altoona

It stood tall through 85 years of wind, rain, snow and heat. It saw 170 semesters and tens of thousands of students pass by. It likely would have stood proudly for another 85 years and 85 after that, but tiny beetles burrowed in the bark of the massive elm tree and slowly began killing it from leaves to roots.

The Dutch elm disease that ravaged through the tree meant it had to be cut down, a loss for the campus, surely, yet a teaching opportunity and a chance to practice one of the three R’s of sustainability – reuse.

Dutch elm disease is caused by a fungus that is transmitted by the elm bark beetle, an exotic species from Asia that was accidentally introduced to the United States in 1928. It is thought that the beetles arrived via a shipment of logs from the Netherlands. They spread quickly and aggressively, along with the fungus, devastating the elm population from New England to Minneapolis by the 1970s. In an attempt to block the fungus, the tree essentially cuts off its own water and nutrient supply. The first symptom of infection is usually an upper branch of the tree with leaves starting to wither and yellow in summer, months before the normal autumnal leaf shedding. This progressively spreads to the rest of the tree, with further dieback of branches. Eventually, the roots die, starved of nutrients from the leaves.

Although the tree had to be cut down, the campus community recognized its wood could still be used. Folks from the environmental studies program suggested re-purposing the wood to create benches for use in the campus’ Seminar Forest, Aldo Leopold benches, specifically. Leopold was an American author, ecologist, forester and environmentalist who helped develop the ideas of modern environmental ethics. He is studied in at least two environmental studies classes. His benches have been used at state parks, forests and residences.

Ian Marshall, professor of English, states “Having the Leopold benches is a way of bringing a prominent environmentalist to the attention of students and visitors to the Seminar Forest. We can explain who Leopold was and why he's an important figure. And of course when we explain what happened to the elm, we can explain about the problems associated with exotic species.”

Aaron White, an environmental studies student, volunteered to build the benches, thinking it would be a fun, hands-on project to undertake. White plans to spend an afternoon constructing the benches, then about a week to stain and waterproof. “It always excites me to create something that will be used by someone and that is timeless. Knowing that these benches will be here for countless future students to use is an incredibly satisfying feeling of accomplishment,” White states.

There are two other significant American elms on campus that have, so far, not been affected. Tim Bruce, facilities and operations, says his department is taking precautions to keep the trees healthy by vigilant pruning and scouting for the beetle. They do this by using something called a pheromone trap, which contains pheromones that trap the beetle and attack it before it can bore into the tree and spread its deadly fungus. 

Said, Erin Nachtman, environmental and sustainability coordinator, “Having lost this tree to Dutch elm disease brings about an awareness of how humans implicate the world around us and often times in negative ways that impact our future generations. Among countless provisions, trees give us the oxygen we breathe. Fewer trees mean an unhealthier world for us and in more ways than one. We are meant to be stewards of the earth for the very short time that we are here. Awareness is the key for us to live and thrive.”

Last Updated October 17, 2013