A path through the woods leads from an adjoining neighborhood toward the Virginia Tech football practice facility and Merryman Athletic Center, center. (Matt Gentry /The Roanoke Times)

On a frosty winter day, forestry Professor John R. Seiler grabbed a tool that looked like a giant corkscrew and twisted it into a huge white oak. He had a feeling that the woods near Virginia Tech’s football stadium were more than just a clutch of trees that burst into the school’s burnt orange and maroon colors in fall.

Seiler’s arms ached, but the screw did not reach the center of the powerful oak. Water the tree had stored for decades gushed from the tiny hole he made, like blood from a needle prick. Still, when Seiler finally yanked out a core sample, he had an answer, a eu­reka that would hinder the athletic department’s attempt to build a $20 million sports practice facility in Stadium Woods, and threaten to turn Hokie nation into a miniature civil war.

That core sample in January was proof that some white oaks in the woods were ancient, older than the United States, possibly dating back to around the founding of Jamestown, growing long before George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were born.

“This is so stinking rare,” he said. “We might have the single largest collection of old-growth white oak left in the eastern United States. This type of forest once covered Virginia. This is what you now have left. This could stay here in theory forever.”

And yet, in spite of this find, the athletic department is determined to press ahead with a plan to destroy a quarter of the forest: about 140 trees, including six to eight great white oaks, some of which are estimated to be more than 300 years old and capable of growing another three centuries.

“The only area is the Stadium Woods,” Jim Weaver, the director of athletics, said last week. “We haven’t gotten into alternative sites because there are very few locations that would work as they would work here.”

Those are fighting words to some in Hokie nation — about 29,000 students and 15,000 residents in Blacksburg. Virginia Tech was named Tree Campus USA by the Arbor Day Foundation three times.

It’s a match-up of a forest versus football, an economic powerhouse that garnered $40 million in revenue last year. The Hokies are a solid football team, runners-up for the Atlantic Coast Conference championship. But their record against top five opponents is a dismal 1-27.

A new indoor practice facility is key to luring top high school recruits to a team that wants to finally win a national championship. Other schools in the ACC are selling recruits partly on indoor practice facilities right alongside their fields. Duke opened its indoor facility last year; University of Virginia is planning one and most important, a facility for major rival Florida State is scheduled for completion this year. Seminole head football coach Jimbo Fisher said the indoor facility will attract elite athletes to the university because of its capacity for year-round workouts, according to a Seminole Boosters news release.

But as far as forest lovers are concerned, the fact that President Charles W. Steger is even considering the plan means that Virginia Tech is backsliding on its pledge to value environmental sustainability and stewardship. Under a 2006 master plan, the woods were designated as a green space that was off limits to development.

An opposition group of residents and school faculty called Friends of Stadium Woods circulated a petition calling on Steger to drop the idea. A group of students vowed to chain themselves to the trees if loggers show up at the woods. The Army ROTC, which uses the woods to train cadets in conceal-and-cover tactics, extolled the value of the woods. The Student Government Association and Faculty Senate came out against the plan to destroy the woods.

An old-growth forest is exactly that, woods packed with centuries-old trees of varying age, dead and alive, thriving and rotting on the forest floor, a biodiversity of bugs and wildlife. Eighty species of migrating sub-tropical birds stop over in the old trees.

Stadium Woods has 26 white oaks with a footprint of 30 inches or more in diameter, meaning they are extremely old, said Seiler, the alumni distinguished professor of forestry biology. Seiler found a Confederate engineer’s 1864 map with trees drawn where the woods stand

“The practice facility’s life span is 50 years,” said Jeff Kirwan, a member of the Friends of Stadium Woods and an emeritus professor at Virginia Tech. “White oaks can live to be 600.”

Kirwan, who co-authored the picture book “Remarkable Trees of Virginia,” said forestry officials “are in the business of helping society manage forests,” and acknowledged that sometimes trees must be cut for progress. “But we stop in the presence of 350-year-old trees and say, ‘Whoa. We don’t go here.’ You take your hat off and give them the respect they deserve.”

Gerry Gray, a senior vice president for American Forests, which fights to protect and restore woodland, said uncovering a true old-growth forest on the East Coast is like seeing a ghost. The whereabouts of old-growth forests in the East is virtually unknown, making Virginia Tech’s woods an enormous find. “If you have trees that age, they are very rare and precious,” Gray said. “The fact that this is on a college campus, and you have a community that has been around it is precious to have.”

Steger, caught in a bind, said he’s listening. He appointed an
ad hoc committee in January to quietly debate the plan. But meetings are closed to the public, and the committee’s 15 members are sworn to silence, outraging the plan’s opponents.

“There’s a certain level of distrust, and that’s understandable,” said John Randolph, a professor of urban planning who chairs the committee. But, he said, “If we’re going to be frank and deliberate in our committee meetings, we’ve got to keep it to ourselves.”

By the time the committee makes it recommendations to Steger, expected June 1, the school will have the results of a definitive scientific aging of the woods by a firm it hired. It will also have a survey sample of student and faculty opinion on football versus the forest.

The trees may be historic, but Virginia Tech football put Blacksburg on the map. Under coach Frank Beamer, the team came tantalizingly close to a national championship before losing the 2000 Sugar Bowl to Florida State University.

That elusive crown is the difference between being a marginal success and an iconic fundraising machine. Winning starts with recruiting, and recruits come to programs with the finest facilities, efficiently joined together in a hive.

And put it where? “You want [training facilities] as close together as possible” so limited practice time isn’t wasted, said Scott Kennedy, director of scouting for FoxSports.com.

Opponents say two alternate locations are perfect — a parking lot and a group of tennis courts near the woods fit the proposed building’s dimensions. School officials say they had other ideas for those sites, including a campus dormitory.

The current indoor facility, Rector Field House, is too far from the outdoor practice field by Lane Stadium to be an option. It would be converted into a permanent indoor track and field venue if the new facility is built.

“No one has debated the need for this facility,” Randolph said. “It has to do with the growing reputation of our program. A lot of it has to do with the recruiting of players, and the quality of our program.”