The administration cut the lower branches from Tree Nine over the summer. The climb, once a staple student experience, is now considerably riskier. It isn’t clear if the measure will stop students from seeking the summit. Photo by Prescott Watson.

Helen Sylvia looked up to find sap dripping from the lower 20 to 25 feet of Tree Nine’s sawed branches. The third-year Stevenson student was not expeting the amputated icon when she visited Tree Nine in August.

For many, climbing this approximately 150-foot Douglas-fir is a tradition and staple of UC Santa Cruz heritage.

Climbing Tree Nine is considered by many to be almost an initiation into UCSC, “but not mandatory,” Sylvia said. “There is so much of an emotional connection. Why are you going to cut down this main symbol?”

Two reasons: the first “to discourage people from climbing the tree, thereby protecting them from possible injury,” said director of public information Jim Burns in an e-mail. The second, “to protect the tree itself from harm.”

UCSC arborists indicated the impact foot traffic can have on Tree Nine’s root system, having effectively removed the organic soil at the base of the tree. There have also been recent reports on injuries students received while climbing other trees.

“Why this tree?” Sylvia said. “The impact that the students are giving it is nowhere in comparison to what the university plans on doing with the [Long Range Development Plan].”

“Students aren’t going to stop climbing trees,” she added. “What are [the arborists] going to do, cut down all the branches of all the trees that are climbable?”

Gage Dayton is director of UCSC Natural Reserves.

“Students can certainly get severely injured or even die if they fell out of this tree,” Dayton said in an e-mail. “But now there’s a rope here. Has the risk gone down? Now what? Do we cut down the tree? Where do you stop? Do we pave the whole forest?”

Dayton was supposed to be consulted with matters regarding the protected area to which Tree Nine belongs, but he was not.

There are several issues that Dayton must consider in his position. He lists “human safety, sensitive species protection, land stewardship, facility construction and placement, transportation, research [and] education” among them.

“Often, many of these considerations are contradictory to one another and we simply have to make the best decision we can based on collective reasoning,” Dayton said in an e-mail. “I believe the lack of communication in this event was simply a breakdown in the process during a time when there had been personnel turnover and reduced staffing.”

He will continue to work on improving the communication between the two parties.

“There were so many other options,” third-year Sylvia said. “What they did was the most drastic measure. There was no process, no democracy, no communication. There is a lack of communication with the students.”

Sylvia was right about one thing at least. Students have continued to climb Tree Nine — with one difference.

“It’s a lot scarier than it used to be,” said a climber who was found in the area.