Thursday, May 7, 2009

UMD students Rally to save 9 acres


Davey Rogner (left) and Clark DeLong in the wooded area the university plans to clear. (Baltimore Sun photo / May 6, 2009)

The University of Maryland, College Park aspires to be one of the "greenest" institutions of higher education in the country and plans to celebrate Friday its designation as an arboretum and "tree campus."But some students and professors say the administration is missing the forest for the trees by planning to bulldoze nearly 9 acres of woods on the sprawling 1,400-acre campus to make way for maintenance sheds, a mail-handling depot and a parking lot for the university's buses and trucks.

"The university says they're going to become carbon neutral by 2050, but they make a decision to cut down 9 acres of forest on the campus," said Davey Rogner, a senior from Silver Spring who's majoring in environmental restoration.He and others plan to stage what one student leader called a "protestabration" Friday at the arboretum festivities, to highlight their concerns about how the loss of the woods conflicts with the university's commitment to the environment.

University officials say they need to use most of the 15-acre wooded hill behind the Comcast Center to relocate support facilities that are to be displaced by the redevelopment on east campus that will bring more stores, eateries, entertainment and graduate student housing. They say putting the maintenance operations anywhere but on the wooded tract would be too costly or pose too many environmental problems.

Anne G. Wylie, vice president for administrative affairs, suggests it's the critics, not the administration, who might need a refresher class in sustainability."This is a very complicated problem," she said, adding that she sees no conflict between bulldozing woods and the university's campaign to be rated one of the nation's greenest schools. The overall aim is to develop a more compact, walkable campus and reduce the amount of driving by students, faculty and staff, she explained. "It's not just about preserving trees."

A delegation of students, faculty and outside environmentalists met with Wylie on Wednesday afternoon, and she said afterward that she's willing to consider any alternatives they suggest. The bulldozer is "many, many months away," she said, though the university is nearing an agreement with a developer to proceed with the east campus project.

The campus festivities Friday will mark the first year of the college's arboretum designation, awarded by the American Public Gardens Association, that recognizes commitment to public education about trees and their value; and a "tree campus" designation from the Arbor Day Foundation.In addition, College Park currently is in second place in a nationwide contest to be declared "America's Greenest Campus." The competition, sponsored by a pair of green companies, aims to get students, faculty and staff to reduce their carbon footprint and use less energy.The east campus redevelopment has been in planning for years, but the fate of the woods became an issue in February, when some students learned of the facility relocation plan and questioned it. The student government association unanimously adopted a resolution calling for an independent review of the issue."It's in our strategic plan, in our climate action plan, in our facilities plan that we will preserve green space and will do everything we can to have carbon-neutral development," said Joanna Calabrese, student government senior vice president and a junior from Columbia. "This goes against everything we stand for - at least as far as we can tell."Some professors and students say the woods are a valuable teaching laboratory as well as a precious natural resource.Ray Weil, a professor of soil science, said he takes his classes to the woods to study the soil and how it functions in an ecosystem. The university dug him a "soil pit" there a few years ago so students could examine the layers of dirt beneath the surface. The ground contains Sassafras soil, Maryland's official state soil, Weil said."There are very little of the natural woods left," said Weil. "It does seem like a shame to put yet more paved parking surface on campus when we have so much of it."Joe Sullivan, associate professor of plant science and landscape architecture, said he holds class behind Comcast as well to let students see how forests grow and how they recover from natural catastrophes. A tornado that ripped through campus in 2001, killing two students, tore out and damaged trees."It's very nice to have a lab within walking distance where we can go out and see native species, the forest growth pattern and the structure of the [tree] canopy," he said.Sullivan said he and other faculty members intend to join students Saturday for a teach-in of sorts about the ecological functions and values of the woods.Other faculty members are trying to steer clear of the controversy.

Marla McIntosh, a professor of urban forestry and director of the university's arboretum and botanical garden, said she's focused on researching the thousands of trees on campus and developing them better as a teaching tool. So far, some 7,000 trees have been identified, she said, and school officials are putting up signs to identify 56 different ones along a marked "tree walk."McIntosh said she hasn't become involved in the university's development plans but doesn't see a disconnect between leveling the woods and being committed to sustainability."As an urban forester, the concept of wanting to keep contiguous space I wholly believe in," she said. "But sometimes things just don't work out."

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