Professor spearheads unique tree project

Growing up, she could be found playing outside in her Minnesota hometown—probably somewhere getting muddy or climbing a tree. Today, instead of climbing them, she’s studying and monitoring the trees on Black Hills State University’s campus. 

The Arbor Day foundation has recently designated Black Hills State University a “Tree Campus USA” as a part of an initiative promoting sustainability on college campuses, and BHSU has Tara Ramsey’s most recent project to thank for that. 

“There have been several thousand trees planted on campus in the last three years,” Ramsey notes regarding her recent research initiative—the Tree Project.

Ramsey is a research associate and adjunct biology instructor at BHSU. Her love for plants began blossoming as she studied Botany at Miami University of Ohio, earning her Master’s of Science before obtaining her PhD at the University of Washington. By doing field station work throughout college, she discovered a passion for biology research. 

Now an ecologist, Ramsey primarily studies invasive plant species. Her background of study includes projects with invasive English ivy, local species of yarrow, and what she calls her “fun project”—the Tree Project. 

The Tree Project began after the devastating winter storm Atlas hit South Dakota in 2013. The 60 mph winds and mass amounts of drifting snow wiped out most of BHSU’s tree population.  

Soon after the storm, the university began to replant and expand the tree population. Ramsey knew a record of each tree on campus would be beneficial for maintenance and future decisions. “Trees have value, and the university didn’t know what they had lost because no one recorded what was there,” Ramsey said.

At the start of the Tree Project, three main tree species were found on campus—ash, spruce, and apple. A low diversity of trees would mean higher chances of disease wiping out the campus trees.

The Tree Project’s goal was two-fold. First, determine what species of trees already exist on campus, then monitor the growth and survival of all trees over time.

Ramsey’s project began by creating a tree map of campus with the combined help of her husband’s, Dr. Justin Ramsey, Plant Systematics class and Dr. Abigail Domagall’s GPS class. Each tree on campus was tagged with a unique number corresponding to the map. 

Lots of trees require lots of help—since refining the map in 2016, the school now hires a team of students to perform annual “check-ups.” Students monitor each tree’s location, foliage health and structure health each summer and meet with Eric Hanson and Debbie Liddick from facilities to update the campus tree map. 

One student hired for this project in 2018 was biology major Ian Osborne who said the job’s most enjoyable aspects were “spending the majority of our time outside, assessing the health of trees and picking fruit in Ida Hinton park, and knowing that we are contributing to something bigger that will be valued by the community.”

As for the project’s next step, Ramsey is working on linking 5-10 photos of each tree—about 1,700 trees to the map. The photos would add a more advanced record, allowing viewers to see the trees grow and change over time.

Photos are currently only available for donated trees.