BOONE — Appalachian State crews are taking precautions to protect one of the oldest trees on campus as a new multi-use pathway is being constructed nearby.

The white oak tree is located between Newland Hall and Wey Hall, where a “pedestrian pathway connector” is planned by the university in an effort to “unite the two halves of Appalachian’s campus” and to allow for temporary vehicular egress during large athletic and arts events.

According to Appalachian arborist Chris Erickson, the tree might not be the oldest tree on campus, but it’s close (there are likely older trees in Appalachian’s Nature Preserve, he said). Erickson said the age of a white oak can be estimated by measuring its diameter and multiplying by five, although the calculations vary by species and many factors skew the results. With a circumference of approximately 16.5 feet and a diameter of 60.1 inches, and allowing for other age factors, he estimates the massive Quercus alba clocks in at between 225 and 300 years.

Despite its age and a changing campus, the tree is healthy, Erickson said, and the university does not anticipate negative impacts due to the pathway construction. The connector will be built with pavers laid in a concrete foundation, and weep holes in the concrete will allow for water penetration — similar to the sidewalks around Sanford Mall, the university said. Construction is under way, with completion expected by the fall 2019 football season.

Money providing for the white oak’s care was included in the construction budget for the $916,866 pedestrian pathway connector, ASU said.

“We plan on really babying this tree during and after construction,” Erickson said. “That includes a trunk injection system to protect it from bugs and hand watering (the tree).”

According to the Arbor Day Foundation, the white oak is “extremely sensitive to soil compaction and grade changes.” However, Erickson noted, although soil becomes compacted by vehicles and equipment, foot traffic contributes more to soil compaction.

Precautions and accommodations in place for the tree during construction include the establishment of a tree protection zone.

“No impacts other than the removal of the existing sidewalk will be permitted in this area,” he said. “We are planning on watering, soil compaction reduction with an air-spade and campus-made compost, replacing all turf within the drip line with mulch or wood chips and monitoring for any pest activity. We have two ISA-certified arborists in the landscape department including myself, so we know what we can do to best help this tree during and after construction.”

Air spading uses compressed air to break up and remove soil, works much more quickly than conventional digging and eliminates the danger of damaging tree roots or utility lines.

Until a few years ago, the sidewalks around the tree were salted regularly to keep pedestrians safe in icy weather. Because runoff from the salt is not tree-friendly, Erickson’s landscape maintenance crew, which is part of Appalachian’s Physical Plant, quit salting there, he explained.

The pedestrian pathway connector project includes removing the sidewalk surrounding the tree — a positive for the oak’s wellbeing.

“Initially we had considered replacing the sidewalk around the tree, but we decided that section of sidewalk is not necessary and that the tree would be much better off without it. The new connector will be the only hard surface in the area,” Erickson said.

However, salting will be used as needed on the nearby pedestrian pathway, ASU said.

“We must keep pedestrian areas as safe as possible, so we will do everything possible to mitigate ice and snow,” ASU spokesperson Megan Hayes said. “While we typically use a salt mixture to do this, we are aware of the impact of salt on the ecosystem and do everything we can to reduce the amount of salt we use, balancing this with the need to maintain walkway safety.”

The new pedestrian path has been intentionally angled away from the tree to mitigate salt damage and root compaction, ASU said. All work in the root zone will be done with hand tools or light machinery.

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