It’s quite a sight to see: grown adults shimmying up tall tree trunks, then attaching themselves near the tops. There, they move from top to bottom, sawing off chunks that come thumping to the ground. It’s the safer way to fell a tree, one that prevents teetering trunks from giving in to gravity and crashing into buildings—and people.
As the estimated 10,000 original trees still standing on the Mills campus near their 150th birthdays (and the end of their lifespans), this process is something that’s happening more and more often to keep the community safe. A particularly windy storm in January of this year brought down seven trees—including one onto the roof of a vacant Mary Morse Hall, and another along the banks of Leona Creek near Mills Hall.
Luan Stauss, senior facilities manager at Mills, is part of a hardworking staff that maintains the College’s 135 heavily wooded acres and its buildings, but handling this kind of specialized work requires different training. “You have to have two certified tree guys—one’s in the air, and one’s below,” she says. “If you’re not certified, you can’t go up and rescue.” The facilities staff previously included two such workers, but those efforts are now undertaken by an outside firm that comes to campus for a variety of problems—including a fungus that was killing off black acacias in 2021.
“We have [the firm] come every year, but it’s usually very focused—the work is on one section of the campus at a time,” Stauss says. “It’s like taking sails off of a boat, so when a big wind comes through, the trees won’t get blown over.” In the wake of that January storm, the firm—Hummingbird Tree Services, based in San Bruno—was on campus for five weeks trimming and taking down trees that were “threatening buildings, or about to be,” Stauss adds. “We prioritize the trees that are near people spaces, so we have to keep an eye on the others out in the back and other places like that.”
Those observations are carried out by Ron Galvan, the grounds manager who supervises the half-dozen groundskeepers who handle the lawns and gardens, pruning and watering, and bodies of water. Galvan, who’s been on the facilities staff at Mills since 1995, spends much of his day out and about, and he gets to know the trees fairly well. “When Ron sees a tree that’s growing, he just knows when it needs pruning: when things are too dense, how the light looks coming in,” Stauss says. The Mills facilities staff will take care of those basic tree-trimming tasks in order to free up the specialists for the more difficult projects.
There are, of course, many varieties of flora and fauna on campus—many of them planted by one of the founders himself. As mentioned in the book Celebrating the Cultural Landscape Heritage of Mills College, Cyrus Mills was fascinated with horticulture. In the years since, the collection has changed and evolved. For instance, when the original eucalyptus trees that lined Kapiolani Road by F.W. Olin Library came down, a different, more sustainable species (Eucalyptus saligna) went in, chosen by a team dedicated to heritage landscape planning at Mills, and in consultation with specialists at The Presidio in San Francisco. In 12 years, those plantings have grown to 80 feet in height.
Even with all this maintenance, efforts must continue. The five weeks of tree work this winter yielded many loads of wood scraps that needed hauling away, but the proliferation of plant life will quickly fill in the gaps. “There’s stumps everywhere, but in six months, the trees we’ve taken out now—you won’t even notice,” Stauss says.