Many have heard of Dr. Suess’s character the Lorax, but they may not have heard of UNC’s very own Lorax, Thomas Bythell.
Bythell has been the University arborist for 20 years, caring for campus trees as well as forests on the University’s non-campus land. His domain includes University Lake and the Carolina North Forest.
Bythell also oversees campus recycling, irrigation and pest management. For Bythell, his job is all about the trees and the students.
"I kind of absorb the energy of the campus,” he said. "It keeps me young.”
As the trees’ steward, Bythell ensures that the landscape and community live in harmony. His work has most recently included relocating a bee hive near the Bell Tower walkway and setting up a hammock park on South Campus to uphold the "no tree use" policy that protects the trees from damage.
Bythell engages with students and the community through organizations such as Edible Campus, the Carolina Campus Community Garden, the environmental honors fraternity Epsilon Eta, UNC courses and inventorying trees with students.
"Nothing happens with a big tree that I don’t know about,” Bythell said.
Anna Wu, the associate vice chancellor for facilities services, said Bythell is key to the campus's success in maintaining its trees and resources, especially because of the importance trees have to Chapel Hill and the University.
"Well, (trees are) part of our campus's DNA,” Wu said.
Bythell echoes Wu and believes the trees are essential to both Chapel Hill and the University.
"What I love about Chapel Hill is they're so serious about it; it is a tree campus,” Bythell said.
One way UNC is serious about trees is with a tree protection program, which requires every construction plan on campus to include a plan of what trees go and what trees stay.
Bythell was involved with this process heavily when the FedEx Global Education Center was built. When looking at which trees to keep in the process of constructing the building, Bythell said all the trees had to “absolutely” stay. The designers of the building took his requirements and shaped the building around the information given about the trees.
“That just goes to show you that it's not me, it's the community, it's the fact that from me all the way to the chancellor, I know I'm speaking for all of them,” Bythell said.
Bythell recognized the amount of collaboration it takes to keep grounds and trees cared for and how much the people he works with help him.
“The grounds department I'm really proud of. They're a bunch of smart, highly qualified professionals,” Bythell said.
Wu also said Bythell’s effort is not a solitary one, but rather his knowledge and work is a resource for the rest of the community to expand from.
"He is...the University arborist, but he also has this tremendous team he works with to spread that information and knowledge about how to protect and value what we have," Wu said.
Bythell said his legacy will be the way he has been able to beautify the most unlikely of places on campus.
"It's being vigilant with projects and not being intimidated and just speaking for the trees," Bythell said.
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