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A photo of a tree damaged by hammocking with text identifiying the location of the tree on campus.

Hammocking, other activities present challenges to Campus Arboretum

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Sep. 2, 2015

What’s an arboretum? Wikipedia defines it as a botanical garden containing living collections of woody plants intended at least partly for scientific study. Sound like somewhere you know? In fact, according to Dr. Frank W. Telewski, curator of the W. J. Beal Botanical Garden and Campus Arboretum at Michigan State University (MSU), the entire MSU campus is an arboretum. That arboretum status goes a long way towards explaining why Telewski’s official statement about plant protection at MSU says that “nothing is to be attached or affixed to any tree on campus for any reason, other than to serve an officially approved academic function associated with research and/or teaching.”

That includes hammocks. Hammocking on campus is increasingly popular, despite the threat of a fine for violating MSU Ordinance 24.01: “No person shall break or cut branches or flowers or fruit, or otherwise damage or mutilate any tree, shrub, herbaceous plant, or flower upon property governed by the Board of Trustees, or remove from the same any identification tag or sign.” The list of “thou shalt not” activities covered by the ordinance includes locking bikes to a tree; tying tents or tarps to trees; affixing signs by any means (tape, string, staples, nails, etc.); tree climbing; and affixing slacklines, hammocks, swings or bird feeders. Even construction companies must follow strict rules for protecting trees in or near any campus construction zone, or they can be fined.

People who enjoy hammocking (including members of the MSU Hammocking Club) are often outdoor enthusiasts who wouldn’t harm a living tree on purpose. Education about the campus arboretum, the research being done in the arboretum, tree physiology and the visible and hidden damage hammocking could inflict on trees might be enough to convince some of these hammockers that campus isn’t the place for their favorite hobby.

The campus trees are part of a living laboratory. Some of MSU’s trees are quite rare, many are involved in current research and some are historic, having been planted by Dr. Beal himself. All of them have their own unique identifier number, are recorded in a database and are inspected regularly for signs of damage or disease. J. Paul Swartz, MSU campus arborist, notes that tree damage may not be obvious from the outside. “The straps which are used to attach a hammock to a tree could cause damage to the living tissue beneath the bark (the cambium layer), which is only two cells thick,” Swartz explained. “Multiple attachments to the same area [of the tree] will cause wearing off of the protective bark layer, damaging the cambium and may eventually cause mortality of a branch [or the tree].”

Even if hammocking could be made safe for the trees, what will make it safe for the hammockers? Most hammocks are attached just a few feet off the ground, but Swartz has witnessed people on campus in hammocks as high as 20-30 feet off the ground. Tree branches are weaker at that height and more likely to break, sending the startled hammocker for a bumpy ride down—and maybe a ride to the hospital.

People tailgating on campus during football season have probably seen the “No parking please—save our trees” signs scattered around tailgating sites. “People think it’s not a problem to park under the shade of a tree, on tree roots, not understanding that constant and repeated parking can damage a tree’s root system,” said Telewski. Starting this fall, people in likely hammocking areas might see similar signs saying, “No hammocking please—save our trees.” The signs also include the full text of the Official Statement Regarding Plant Protection on the MSU Campus from the Office of the Curator, W.J. Beal Botanical Garden and Campus Arboretum.

“The MSU staff who care for the campus trees are not targeting any one specific activity, but are enforcing a policy that has been implemented for decades to protect the campus trees,” said Telewski in a recent email. “It is one of the many reasons we are known and treasured for our beautiful, verdant campus of healthy trees.”

MSU Infrastructure Planning and Facilities builds and maintains the physical environment for Michigan State University’s education, research and outreach missions, and directs the university’s sustainability initiatives and long-term infrastructure planning goals. The unit’s experienced team of professionals keeps MSU running 24/7/365, delivering an immense menu of services and providing expert analysis for university objectives. Call (517) 353-1760 for emergency service.

Hammock infographic