Walking from one end of Franklin College’s campus, visitors can count more than 1,100 trees.
Students heading to class pass under towering oak trees, shady maples and even native persimmon trees.
An urban forest planted on the outskirts of campus eventually will provide the type of old-growth habitat that was common in Indiana 500 years ago.
Franklin College has emphasized the importance of fostering healthy trees on campus, both for aesthetic and educational reasons.
For the efforts, the college has been recognized by the International Society of Arboriculture and the Arbor Day Foundation. But the greater value is in making the student body more appreciative of the trees around them.
“A lot of times, we don’t have time in our day to leave and go somewhere far away. If I want to teach students about forest communities by walking five minutes, that makes it much easier for the students,” said Alice Heikens, a biology professor at the college.
On a three-acre plot in the Grizzly Park athletic complex, more than 50 trees have been planted and maintained. The open field, situated just south of the newly constructed tennis courts, contains 22 species native to Indiana.
Burr oaks and black gums grow next to tulip poplar, sassafras and paw paw trees.
Almost all of the trees are in their infancy, standing no more than 6 feet high. But college officials envision a time when towering northern oaks, shagbark hickory and midsized dogwood trees provide shade for spicebush and wildflowers.
With trees such as oaks, hazelnuts and paw paws, the forest will also support squirrels and other animals.
The urban forest was made possible through a grant Heikens applied for in 2011 from the Indiana Department of Natural Resources’ Community and Urban Forest Program.
Initially, Heikens had submitted a grant proposal to plant various native species on campus. She is a biology professor who specializes in plant ecology and wanted to make it easier for some of the trees, shrubs and flowers to be simpler to care for.
Though Franklin College did not get the grant, Heikens learned of another grant that would help create an urban forest in the newly created Grizzly Park.
“We were looking for ways to reduce the amount of resources on mowing and also to improve educational opportunities for our students,” she said. “It would be lower maintenance long term. It would be more environmentally friendly. It would be more aesthetically pleasing.”
The college received a grant for $7,293 to construct the urban forest. Focusing on native Indiana trees, they planned a setup that would allow the forest to grow up into a healthy forest in 50 to 100 years.
The design was done to replicate the four-tiered habitat the forest provides. Tall canopy trees were supported by midsized trees, shrubs and the forest floor such as grasses and ferns.
“Before European settlers moved to central Indiana, this was all forested. So we looked at the species that would have been found here at that time, and that’s what we planted,” Heikens said. “They are not in rows, they’re scattered. We want it really to look like it did before European settlers came here.”
The idea is eventually for ecology students to come to the forest to identify and examine the trees. Art classes can do drawings in the field, and photographers can work on composition in a unique space.
Even the community will be able to walk through it.
“People can come in and walk through, learn about species native to Indiana that they may have growing in their backyard,” Heikens said.
The grant also allowed Franklin College to apply to be a Tree Campus USA. In order to reach that distinction, the college had to form a tree care advisory board, put together a campus plan to take care of the existing trees and recognize Arbor Day with student activities.
Part of that effort required the college to identify every tree on campus, giving its species, its location and its measurements.
The job fell to two students — Alysa Hopkins, who graduated in 2013, and current senior Megan Smith.
Smith is an ecology and conservation major at Franklin College. She was interested in plant and tree identification, and Heikens suggested that she take on the inventory project.
Over the course of several weeks, she and Hopkins paced back and forth on campus, recording all of their data.
“There were a few species that I wasn’t familiar with and had to go through a key to identify them,” Smith said. “We had some persimmon trees that I was surprised that we had.”
From the inventory, the college learned the college’s trees remain in good shape, Heikens said.
Though the drought of 2012 killed a small number, the school’s facilities crew did a good job of protecting, watering and maintaining the majority of campus trees.
More difficult was making sure the urban forest, planted just before the start of the drought, survived.
“We spent a tremendous amount of time and energy on those trees,” Heikens said. “We watered all of the time. We even hired a student to water the trees over the summer, spending 10 or 12 hours a week just watering those trees.”
The college also hired a tree specialist, one of the grounds employees who was trained by a certified arborist to watch for disease, manage the trees’ growth responsibly and ensure the trees remain healthy.
For its efforts, Franklin College received the Tree Campus USA distinction in December. The International Society of Arboriculture also recognized the college with the Gold Leaf Award for its urban forest project.
The award recognizes individuals, organizations and communities for outstanding Arbor Day programs, tree plantings and programs that have a significant impact on a community, said Lee Huss, award chairman for the Indiana Arborists Association.
“It is given to either municipalities or civic groups that have gone above and beyond when it comes to tree planting, that makes a significant contribution to the community,” he said. “What made Franklin so unique is that they really partnered with a number of individuals — they partnered with other state organizations that made this unique.”
Imagining what the urban forest can become is still difficult. The trees are too young and do not provide the shade needed to grow wildflowers and shrubs yet, Heikens said. Reaching that level likely won’t happen for another 10 years.
“At some point, we’ll have a forest here,” Heikens said. “I may not see this turn into a beautiful forest, but we’re really leaving something for future generations here.”