Dozens of trees stood on the site where Michigan Medicine is building a new 12-story hospital.
But rather than meet a bulldozer, they had a much happier fate. Over six weeks last fall, a tree transplant company relocated them to several spots around U-M’s Ann Arbor campus in what is believed to be the largest tree relocation effort in university history.
Officials said the initiative reflects a commitment to environmental stewardship, both in terms of the new hospital and U-M at large.
“Michigan Medicine has demonstrated a long-standing commitment to managing a positive and healthy ecosystem, and our new hospital will reflect these interests,” said Tony Denton, associate vice president and chief operating officer for the U-M Health System. “Relocating the trees to new sites across the university was important to us for environmental sustainability and beautification reasons. We are thrilled to see it all work out.”
The Health System and U-M’s Custodial & Grounds Services collaborated on saving the trees.
Alexander Sulzer, project manager for Custodial & Grounds Services, said when he and campus forester Mike Rutkofske first saw initial plans for the hospital about two years ago, they noticed there were more than 100 trees on the building site.
“They were of the appropriate size and species that we could use them other places on campus,” Sulzer said. “We contacted the (hospital) project manager, Bryan Valachek, and that kind of got the ball rolling.”
With the Health System on board, the next steps involved examining the trees to make sure they were suitable for moving, and then finding new locations for them.
Sixty-four trees were initially selected for relocation. Four of those couldn’t be moved because of conflicts with underground utilities, Sulzer said. It turned out that another 10 didn’t need to be moved after all. In the end, 50 trees were dug up and transplanted.
The $37,000 cost was rolled into the budget for the hospital project, Sulzer said. Blacy Tree Transplant in Milan, Michigan, was hired for the job.
The saved trees included a variety of oaks, Kentucky coffees, maples, tulips and gingkos. They ranged in size from 5 to 10 inches in diameter.
The trees are now growing all over campus, including on the North Campus Research Complex, the Wolverine Tower property and the Diag.
On an ice-cold morning in December, Blacy Tree Transplant owner Randy Bloss operated a tree spade that slowly lowered a tulip tree into a hole on the sloped edge of Palmer Field. He adjusted the spade’s position several times before its claws opened, setting the tree in place.
“These are the straightest trees around,” he said, “and if you don’t get them straight, everybody notices.”
Perhaps the most famous tree relocation at U-M occurred in 2014. A 700,000-pound, 65-foot-tall bur oak was moved about 100 yards west to make room for an expansion of the Stephen M. Ross School of Business.
Sulzer and Jane Immonen, a U-M forestry specialist, said the latest relocation was also notable because it was likely the first time so many trees were moved at once.
“I am truly amazed that they all got moved,” Immonen said. “Usually it’s six or eight, or maybe two or three when there’s an addition going on a building. It’s usually just a handful a year. This (was) a wholesale operation where we did dozens of them.”
There are about 17,000 trees on campus, not counting those on woodlots. The grounds department keeps detailed inventory and maintenance records on each one as part of a comprehensive tree management program.
Crews plant trees on campus every spring and fall, averaging about 80 new trees a year, Sulzer said. Many of those are replacements for sick or storm-damaged trees.
The Arbor Day Foundation has recognized U-M as a Tree Campus USA, a designation given to colleges and universities that show a commitment to planting and maintaining trees.
“It’s part of the fabric of our campus, our beautiful lawns and our beautiful trees,” Sulzer said.
Bloss, of Blacy Tree Transplant, knows trees — and U-M — well. His late father, John, started the company in 1966. The company has moved thousands of trees for the university and the city of Ann Arbor since then. Bloss started helping his dad when he was just 8 years old.
“Sometimes, you’ve got old ’60s-designed buildings, and you change the facade into something that looks beautiful just by putting a tree in front of it,” Bloss said. He praised U-M for its “forward-thinking” approach to tree preservation.
Despite wet conditions that caused some delays, Immonen said the trees were transplanted at an ideal time because they were dormant. Moving trees during that stage can help reduce transplant-related shock.
In the spring, forestry staff will add slow-drip irrigation bags around the bases of the trees to help them thrive in their new homes.
“This was a really good story about environmental preservation,” Immonen said. “Those trees will be purifying the air, they will be shading the landscape. They will be a positive addition to the outdoor environment at the university.”