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UNLV's King of Trees

Paul Dzerk came to UNLV three decades ago to transform the dusty campus into the arboretum it is today.

People  |  Nov 16, 2017  |  By Tony Allen
man clearing away palm tree branches

Paul Dzerk has been caring for UNLV's trees for more than three decades. (R. Marsh Starks/UNLV Creative Services)

It’s not surprising that Paul Dzerk’s first encounter with UNLV in 1973 happened on a hunt for trees.

Back then, UNLV’s arborist had just moved to Las Vegas with the Air Force. On his way to a nursery on Tropicana Avenue to pick up a few olive trees — still his favorite to this day — he noticed UNLV’s brand new Flora Dungan Humanities Building towering over the sparse desert campus.

“I’d seen some stories in the paper about this great big new building out in the desert at UNLV and thought, ‘So that’s where UNLV’s at. Why’d they put it so far out of town?’”

A few years later, Dzerk retired from the Air Force after 21 years and bounced around a bit, working in New Mexico and overseas before settling back in Las Vegas. He thought about getting a pickup truck and some lawn equipment and starting his own business — he’d always liked trees and working outdoors — but then he spotted a job opening on UNLV’s new tree crew, which just had been tasked with greening up and bringing shade to UNLV’s dusty campus. The team's work eventually led to UNLV being designated an official arboretum and a listing the Arbor Day Foundation's Tree Campus USA.

“It was really the best of both worlds,” he says. “I got to work in what was becoming a park environment and, instead of jumping from site to site, I could see how the trees were growing.”

Dzerk admits he didn’t think he’d be at UNLV this long. But fast forward 32 years to a campus now bustling with more than 4,300 trees — including 10 state champions. 

“Being able to see the results of your work years on down the line, I really like that,” he says. “When new tree members come in, I’m now like the grandpa telling stories of how it used to be.”

After 30-plus years of working with trees, he says it’s hard to look at a tree the same way most people do. Then, with a chuckle, he adds, “some of the tree crew say I talk to the trees.” (So do I Paul, but it’s cool.)