Elizabeth Davison is the director of the UA Campus Arboretum, a job she took after serving as the chair of a committee that met in 1999 to develop the idea that the campus could become an arboretum. Davison has been teaching horticulture classes at the UA since 1990, and she's seen the campus change into a true desert oasis that uses less water, thanks in part to more desert-friendly trees and plants. For more information on the Campus Arboretum, visit arboretum.arizona.edu.
How has the campus changed since I graduated 20 years ago?
First, there's much more of an emphasis on arid-tolerant plants from the region, and plants from other arid and dry lands around the world, particularly ones that work in cities, do well with reflective heat and work with a lot of pedestrian traffic. Instead of having a Mediterranean/California look, (we have worked to make the campus) become more desert-looking, with a much better sense of place. The next change has happened the last five years, with retaining rainwater all over the property. ... The rainwater-harvesting projects around campus are more student-driven.
Does the UA still have an irrigation system?
Yes, and that's another change. The UA has several wells under its properties, and for the first century, the university pumped water out of the well, and there was plenty if it. We don't use those wells anymore, and now 99 percent of the water we use in our irrigation system is reclaimed water—but the water is saltier. If we can save irrigation water by using rainwater, all the plants appreciate it.
What's your favorite place on campus?
I'd have to say the fish pond. It's over by Gila Hall. There are fish there, but also dozens of turtles, and it's full of wildlife, including ducks. ... It's been there since the 1930s, before Gila was built. That property used to be where the president's house was located, a Victorian house, and the pond was part of the property.
How did the UA create the Campus Arboretum?
The documenting is part of what makes a site an arboretum. One of the things is that you have to have all of your trees identified and named. There are more than 8,000 trees, and they are all named, numbered and mapped.
What recognition are you particularly pleased with?
The most far-reaching is that we are now a Tree Campus USA, and that was a year-long nomination process. ... No. 1, we had to document the committees and people who helped to govern, maintain and manage the tree collection. No. 2, we had to have a tree-care plan with a description of procedures, decision-making hierarchies, how things get managed in a storm, and who has responsibility for this thing and that thing. That all had to be created.
What does it mean for the UA and the community?
It recognizes colleges and university campuses that effectively manage their campus trees, and campuses that develop connectivity with the community and advocate for healthy urban forests. Also, (it recognizes) campuses that try to get their students involved, so it's partly student-centered, partly community-oriented, and partly, it's global: The more trees you have, the more carbon gets sequestered, creating cleaner air and cooler temperatures. This really is an oasis. That benefits the campus and Tucson.
Do you think enough people in Tucson know about the arboretum?
Oh, probably not. The people who do know the most and care—and have been very supportive—are the neighborhoods around the campus. Many consider the campus their own private park. They like to walk their dogs through campus. ... Those who live closer to the university have been very supportive all along.
Is using more rainwater a strategy to deal with the UA budget cuts?
The rainwater-harvesting helps with the amount of water we use, but what's helped reduce the budget is less water-oriented, and more labor-oriented. We don't have large color petunia beds anymore. ... They do take a lot of water, but what is more important for the university is that they do take a lot of labor. We've focused labor on keeping things safe, keeping trees in good shape, and caring for the larger and more mature plants, to make sure they have the care that they need. The people who take care of the campus are the real heroes. They do an incredible job with very little resources, and very few workers get hired. They start early, and they do (a lot). They are horticulturalists, but they often have to be trash-picker-uppers and repairmen.