The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The University of Maryland rightly paused its plan to clear an urban forest

University of Maryland students gather on campus on Oct. 15 to protest a planned development that would bring affordable graduate student housing to campus but destroy trees. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post). (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

The writers are professors, including distinguished university professors and department chairs, in environmental health science, atmospheric and oceanic science, chemistry and biochemistry, earth system science, biology, geographical sciences, public policy, geology and sociology at the University of Maryland College Park.

The message from the global COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, is clear: “We are still careening towards climate catastrophe.” Urgent actions, such as the recent pledge by more than 100 world leaders to end deforestation by 2030, are needed at all levels to bolster climate resilience and advance sustainability. In this vein, we applaud University of Maryland College Park (U-Md.) President Darryll J. Pines and Graduate Student Government President Tamara Allard for their recent announcement to pause planning on a housing development that would have required extensive deforestation of campus land.

Under the previous administration, the university developed a plan to sell 9.1 acres of Guilford Woods — publicly owned, forested land — to the Gilbane Development Company to build 81 private townhomes and associated infrastructure. Three hundred graduate housing units were also planned to be built on an additional 2.26 acres that would be leased to Gilbane. This “Western Gateway Project” would have resulted in transit-oriented housing next to campus. However, it also would have eliminated 28 percent of U-Md.’s main campus forest cover, even as U-Md. faculty work to combat deforestation globally.

This past year, thousands of individuals, including community members, faculty, students and elected officials, voiced serious concerns about this project. A student-led rally in support of preserving Guilford Woods drew hundreds on campus, and petitions were launched by groups including Save Guilford Woods, Students for Guilford Woods and the Maryland Sierra Club. A separate U-Md. faculty/staff petition was signed by more than 470 individuals, including distinguished university professors, department chairs and leading experts in climate science, biodiversity, sustainability and public health.

Commendably, the recent U-Md. announcement indicated that instead of pursuing the Western Gateway Project now, the university will focus on an alternative transit-oriented redevelopment site to build critically needed graduate housing. This is welcome news, indicating the university’s willingness to listen to the concerns of our broader campus community and, hopefully, openness to preserving Guilford Woods in perpetuity.

As faculty members representing a diverse cross section of the university, we support the permanent preservation of this important urban forest on the basis of well-established, sound science, including data generated by leading U-Md. scientists.

Urban forests provide environmental and human health benefits that are well-documented. They remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, improve air quality, conserve soil, reduce stormwater runoff, reduce urban heat island effects, support wildlife and other biodiversity and improve mental and physical health. Guilford Woods, in particular, contains the headwaters of Guilford Run, which feeds into the Anacostia River, providing benefits to local and downstream communities.

Positive impacts associated with urban forests like Guilford Woods will become increasingly important as our climate continues to change. The most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report demonstrates that the planet is experiencing more frequent and intense extreme heat and precipitation events, and this will only worsen in the foreseeable future.

This year, the highest temperature ever reliably recorded on Earth was measured in the United States. More than 600 deaths were reported in Washington and Oregon, a region that typically has moderate summers. Here in College Park, where summers are already scorching, it is not a matter of if we will experience a similarly destructive heat wave, but when.

So, how can we adapt to this threat and protect our environment, wildlife and vulnerable populations? We must preserve and expand our urban forests. In the words of William Moomaw, the lead author of five IPCC reports, “Letting existing natural forests grow is essential to any climate goal.”

Urban forests can effectively lower daytime summer temperatures by 10 degrees through shade and evapotranspiration. In Guilford Woods, this function is critical, given that National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data show that the rest of the U-Md. campus is already an urban heat island. If Guilford Woods is lost, our heat island will worsen, negatively affecting the environment, air quality and human health.

College Park has lost more than 37,000 trees between 2009 and 2018. As we continue to navigate our ongoing “code red” climate crisis, we cannot afford to lose more.

U-Md.’s decision to pause the Western Gateway Project and pivot the construction of graduate housing to a site that represents true infill development exemplifies the disciplined, tough decisions that are needed to address our ongoing climate and biodiversity crises. We are hopeful that the university will take the next step, continuing to work with campus stakeholders, community partners and elected officials, to permanently preserve the entirety of Guilford Woods, with all of its irreplaceable benefits to the university and surrounding communities.

In doing so, the University of Maryland would clearly demonstrate its commitment to local climate action and sustainability, serving as a model of excellence for other universities and communities that face similarly difficult choices in their efforts to ensure a more sustainable future.