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Meet Don Ham, Arboricultural consultant

Dan Ham, Clemson tree expert investing at building site.

Clemson Expert Protects Urban Trees Through Smart Choices

A bushy holly and a pair of large white oaks behind Clemson University’s Clemson House stand at the center of a conversation about trees and stewardship that has continued for two years in advance of a coming transformation of Douthit Hills.

The three trees grow near the northwestern edge of Douthit Hills, an 80-acre area of campus where now-demolished duplexes once housed graduate students and their families. When construction of a $212 million on-campus residential village for upperclassmen and freshmen in the Bridge to Clemson program begins this summer, about 300 of nearly 800 trees on the property with a diameter of four inches or more will be removed to make way for seven residential buildings and a central hub with dining, a bookstore and other student amenities.  

Tree removal decisions can be difficult. The holly and white oaks are in the path of a parking area. Their fate remains under discussion. The evergreen holly leaves and seasonal red berries add color, says Mike Parker, the project manager, who is exploring options to save the trio of trees.

On a sunny March day, Parker and Don Ham, a Clemson Emeritus Professor of Forestry and Natural Resources and principal of The Laurus Group, a Seneca-based arboricultural consulting company, continued the ongoing conversation. A nearby cluster of water oaks could be sacrificed to reconfigure the parking area and save the holly and white oaks, Ham says.

“I love trees, but I want to make smart choices,” Ham says. Water oaks are shorter-lived and prone to internal decay that causes branches to split off and fall. They “will develop into a risk – if they’re not currently a risk,” he says.

Ham’s love for trees began at the age of nine, when his family moved to six wooded acres in Illinois. Science and education are his tools of choice as an arborist, urban forester and advocate for trees. He is a past president of the International Society of Arboriculture and has four decades of experience in arboriculture and urban forestry teaching, research, service and consulting. Clemson routinely calls him about critical decisions concerning campus trees.

Dan Ham, Clemson tree expert investing at building site.In the fall of 2012, after Clemson’s Landscape Services arboricultural staff completed an engineering survey that located each tree on the site with a diameter of four or more inches, Ham was brought in to assess species, size, condition and potential risk of each tree.

Some Douthit trees need to be removed due to age or structural problems that increase the risk of falling branches or trees. Some have damaged root systems from poor drainage or compacted soil after decades of giving shade to residents’ cars and tailgate parties.

Parker had sought to save a tall Deodar cedar with an unusual triple trunk near Highway 93 – until Ham revealed its checkered past. It already had been bolted together and bound with cable to keep it from splitting apart and potentially falling on a pedestrian or vehicle. “The health and structural strength of a tree are unrelated,” Ham says. “The health of the tree can be good but there can be risk due to its structure.” That is the case for several oaks across Highway 93 from the President’s House. One recently came down. Ham believes others will fall soon if they aren’t removed first.

“If they can’t be protected and preserved, I would much rather see them removed,” Ham says. “Many of these trees are over-mature.”

Ham recalls some near misses. A big bur oak fell across the sidewalk stairway between the Clemson House and the Alumni Center. Fortunately it happened overnight and no one was on the sidewalk. Late another night, a tree crashed onto Highway 93 and trapped a car in the fork of its branches. Amazingly there was no damage or injury.

Some Douthit trees slated for removal are simply in the footprint of development despite modifications to save as many trees as possible. Sometimes construction could be shifted a few feet to save a healthy tree. In other cases “we didn’t have the luxury,” Ham says.

Clemson’s practice is to plant more trees than removed and introduce more species diversity. About 400 trees will be planted at Douthit Hills, ultimately resulting in more trees and a greater variety.

Most of the trees are oaks, so “a more diverse palate would be good,” Ham says.

Some protection is already in place. Yellow and black barricades surround a centrally located white oak to keep construction vehicles off of its roots until protective tree fencing is installed. Six miles of protective tree fencing will go up around the nearly 500 remaining trees this summer. Compare that to the two miles of construction fence around the perimeter of the 80 acres. It’s a lot of fencing. Other plans include modified sidewalk construction to protect roots of a large holly along Highway 93

As an added precaution, Clemson required the project contractor to hire a certified arborist to be on site. The consultant selected is a Clemson graduate with knowledge of the property and its importance to the university and community, Ham says.

“It’s ironic,” Ham says. “Trees are so sturdy and live so long. People tend to look at them as able to withstand everything and live forever, but that’s certainly not the case.”