Robert McCartney: U-Md. shouldn't drop ideals in hard times

By Robert McCartney
Sunday, November 15, 2009

Perched on a rise at the northern tip of campus, near the arena where the Terps play basketball, is a small forest known as the Wooded Hillock where University of Maryland students jog, study and smoke the occasional joint.

Now, after prolonged but apparently insufficient study, the school wants to bulldoze nine acres of the hillock's 22 to make room for equipment sheds, a parking lot and other maintenance facilities. Administrators say it's the only affordable site for those operations, and the move is critical to the school's ambitious (although stalled) East Campus redevelopment plan aimed at making College Park a more fun, cool place to go to school.

The university should look again. I'm willing to raze trees when necessary for the sake of smart growth, such as to build the light rail Purple Line linking College Park to Bethesda. But this plan contradicts the university's numerous, solemn pledges to become a national leader in protecting the environment.

"You can't tout sustainability and then, behind closed doors, ignore it," said Joanna Calabrese, a senior from Columbia who is director of environmental affairs for the Student Government Association.

The battle over the hillock illustrates how universities come under pressure to sacrifice their idealistic goals during hard economic times. In another issue on campus that reflects the same stress, the university is under fire for eliminating the office of the top-ranking administrator for diversity just after African American enrollment plunged in the freshman class.

"Ultimately we are left with bad choices," Nariman Farvardin, senior vice president for academic affairs and provost, told a spirited session of the University Senate on Thursday. "How can we cut without hurting some part of the university?"

Farvardin said the university remains committed to diversity but warned that more spending cuts are coming. Budget and diversity issues dominated Thursday's debate and took so much time that a planned motion to preserve the hillock didn't reach the floor.

The economic pressures might provide a reprieve for the trees, at least temporarily. That's because they must go only if it's necessary to move facilities being displaced by East Campus -- and that project's future is uncertain.

The university announced Friday that it has ended its two-year-old deal with the development team of Foulger-Pratt/Argo Investment to build East Campus. It cited troubles in the financial and real estate markets.

Although the school remains committed to the project in the long run, the delay is a setback. The plan to erect a lively town center with a mix of shops and student housing is designed to help lure good students and faculty, and to be central to President C.D. Mote Jr.'s legacy.

A decision about the hillock might come soon, despite the change in the East Campus plan, as the university said it will decide by Jan. 1 about relocating operations. If the school starts chopping down trees, it will have to explain some of its past statements:

In 2007, the university's Master Plan said it "will strive to protect and enhance existing natural environments."

In 2008, the school's strategic plan set a goal of being "recognized as a national model for a Green University."

In 2009, a report in March by the university Office of Sustainability acknowledged: "The proposed development of the Wooded Hillock appears to be inconsistent with the [Master Plan's] environmental conservation goals."

The university contends that the entire East Campus effort is a boon for the environment, partly because it's transit-friendly and will reduce students' reliance on cars. It considered sites other than the hillock but concluded they were unsatisfactory because of cost or environmental harm. It has said the forest is low-quality, apparently referring to damage from a 2001 tornado.

The hillock's defenders, led by urban forestry Prof. Marla McIntosh, support East Campus but say the university hasn't looked hard enough for alternatives. They also say the university didn't do its homework when it concluded the trees were of little value, as trees go.

The hillock is the only example on campus of mature, upland forest trees, free of invasive species. It's a teaching tool, used for classes attended by 1,300 students a year. It has unusual biological diversity, including eight species of oak and a broad variety of songbirds, and is habitat for the hard-to-find lady slipper orchid.

The damage from the tornado actually made the trees more valuable, McIintosh says, because it offers a chance to observe a long-standing forest grow back. It's little comfort that most of the trees will remain, she says, because they will be affected significantly by the cutting.

"One of our problems in Maryland is our patches of forest are little. They don't function well as a result," McIntosh said.

Hillock activists say the maintenance facilities could supplant one of the numerous, expansive parking lots that dot the campus. One argument against that is it would reduce space available for football tailgaters. As one wit put it, however, the university shouldn't let the tailgaters wag the dog.

Was This Worth $250,000?

Students and faculty frustrated over budget cuts are especially annoyed that a consultant was paid a quarter-million dollars for marketing help that has led to a new tag line: "Unstoppable Starts Here." A school spokesman said it "builds upon the success," rather than replaces, the Terps' inspired sports slogan, "Fear the Turtle."

E-mail me at mccartneyr@washpost.com.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company