It’s a warm, sunny Tuesday and a half dozen UC Berkeley forestry undergraduates are lugging seedlings down Tightwad Hill – that steep incline overlooking Memorial Stadium where enthusiastic cheapskates can watch football games for free.
The students are part of Berkeley’s 100-year-old forestry club, and they’re here to get real-world experience surveying a plot of land, deciding which native plants belong and digging the holes to plant new trees and shrubs.
Their mission is to restore Tightwad Hill to something close to what it should naturally be: a grassy hill filled with native oak trees and shrubs. The work is part of a larger UC Berkeley effort to thin fire-prone non-native trees from the hills above campus, and replace them with more-natural oaks and shrubs.
“This is our opportunity to put something back that should be here,” Devin Woolridge, Berkeley’s head of fire mitigation told the students before they started planting a mix of valley oaks, madrones, buckeyes and local currant shrubs.
As the native plants grow, they’ll slowly replace the dying pine trees, which were planted as an experiment by forestry professors in the 1920s and will be cut down.
Within 10 years, the hill will be filled with native grasses and oak trees that are less likely to burn or fall over. There will still be plenty of room for tightwad football fans and the California Victory Cannon, which is fired every time Cal’s football team scores a touchdown or field goal.
Woolridge had the idea to ask forestry students to help restore the hillside, both as a way to give them practical experience and to rely on their expertise. The group hopes to plant some 100 trees and shrubs this month.
“I like having a connection with students, because we’re Cal, we’re a school,” Woolridge said. “And that we have a student group that is more knowledgeable than I am? That’s an opportunity.”
The planting is part of a trend at UC Berkeley to offer academic students more chances to apply what they learn in lecture and lab outside of the classroom.
“To actually be outside and get your hands in the dirt, that’s fundamental,” said Jodi Axelson, an assistant cooperative extension specialist in forest health who advises the club. “And they’re also giving back to the community, to the campus.”
Senior Hunter Noble agreed. The 21-year-old had just finished planting a valley oak sapling near a dead pine tree, counting on the fallen trunk to shield his young tree from getting trampled.
“It is really important to learn theory and textbook knowledge, but every forest is different and you really need to be there and see what other people have done, and do some problem-solving,” he said.
Noble said he could imagine returning to campus in a few years to check on the hill and see how the trees he’s planted are doing.
The experience was also useful for Ross Lelieu, 20, a sophomore, who is still starting out his forestry studies.
“It is nice getting a feel for what we might be doing as a career,” he said sitting in the sun and looking out across San Francisco Bay after planting a madrone. “I don’t think anybody else gets to do this. It is definitely worth it.”
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