Seeing the Forest for the Trees (They’re just trees)

hillock-treehouseIn response to Robert McCartney’s Op-Ed yesterday in the Washington Post, I decided to throw together the following as I continue to ruminate over the massive amount of debate surrounding the proposed development (also see savethehillock.com) of 9 acres of the 22 acres “Wooded Hillock” behind the Comcast Center:

As an environmentalist and former land conservationist, I mourn the proposed loss of trees as much as the next person. Also, I’m usually less than inclined to side with the University on most issues related to development in College Park. These two things being said, I continue to see no better alternative than the Wooded Hillock for the relocation of facilities on East Campus. I don’t understand how McCartney can say UMD’s examination of alternative sites for these facilities was an “apparently insufficient study”. Somehow studies always seem to be insufficient if the conclusions they reach aren’t in accordance with your own.

UMD did plenty of research and determined the Wooded Hillock  was the cheapest to prepare for construction  and one of the least visible places close to campus  to put these facilities of all the alternatives. The employees in these facilities will constantly be coming back and forth between the (relocated) facilities and buildings that they work on all over campus. Do we really want to have them constantly deploying from across town by M Square (the Golob Property) or up Metzerott Road thus increasing local traffic?

The Wooded Hillock is an ecologically insignificant isolated forest that lays inside the beltway and is itself bordered by several roads. It has little importance for water quality and next to no habitat value. If the property were privately owned, the State wouldn’t even consider purchasing it for ecological reasons with Program Open Space money. The best argument against the destruction of this forest is its educational value as a second-growth, tornado-damaged ecosystem. Unfortunately for UMD’s opponents on this matter, just a portion of the on-campus forest that exhibits those characteristics will be destroyed. Indeed, the 2001 tornado ripped the forest apart all the way up to the Denton Community. If research groups want to go further afield they could look at much larger tornado-disturbance areas north of campus where the county owns thousands of acres of protected stream valley land along the Paint Branch Trail.

Let’s put the sentimentalism aside and focus on much more significant environmental issues in College Park like ways we can cultivate smart, dense infill development and reduce carbon emissions from transportation by promoting biking, walking, and transit. It’s ironic that activists were fighting these facilities being relocated to the Wooded Hillock when they should have focused their efforts on FP-Argo’s proposal to put a whopping 5,500 parking spaces under and around East campus: a move that would have forever cemented the development as a car-oriented suburban mega-development masquerading as a new urbanist “smart growth” success story. At least one benefit to the delay of  East Campus is that we may never see quite that level of parking as it would rely on unheard of amounts of public money. Activists should set their sites on the University’s 2-year intransigence when it comes to the Purple Line alignment on Campus Drive. Better yet, they could demand a near term closure of Campus Drive to private automobiles as the UM Facilities Master Plan envisions (see RTCP’s proposed resolution).

College Park’s environmental community can achieve much more and should get out of this small-bore moral fight over 9-acres of forest. They would be wise to extract themselves from their standing up for the trees against the big evil University position. There are much bigger fish to fry.

8 thoughts on “Seeing the Forest for the Trees (They’re just trees)”

  1. Isolated? Yes. Insignificant? Absolutely not. It is a shame that this area has been so heavily developed to the point where the only undisturbed forest left on campus is completely boxed in by roads.

    But it is that same fact that makes the Hillock so very worth saving. It does indeed constitute a viable forest ecosystem, and it is making a healthy recovery from the 2001 tornado. If you would take an hour or so to go out there, you’d see the rich biodiversity of native plants (http://www.savethehillock.com/plant_survey.php), birds (http://www.savethehillock.com/bird_survey.php), snakes, and fungi. Having a healthy, viable forest inside the beltway is a goldmine and a wonderful confluence of pristine nature and accessibility. There are other forests nearby, and even inside the beltway (Greenbelt Park). But how many of these can you walk to for a 75-minute class during a busy day?

    It also lies directly uphill from our Campus Creek, one of the things we are supposedly trying to protect (http://www.sustainability.umd.edu/content/campus/stormwater.php). Throwing a huge, impervious parking lot directly uphill from the creek will increase the amount of oil, gasoline, and other rubbish that run off into the creek.

    I agree with you that there are other important environmental issues in our area, and I support those who are putting a lot of hard work into issues such as the Purple Line, reducing traffic on campus, and encouraging more use of public transportation. But these are not separate issues, and the fate of the Hillock is completely intertwined with them. Consider this: if you succeed in reducing the number of cars coming into campus, we’ll have a lot of empty parking lots. If that happens, don’t you suppose we’ll find ourselves with several new options for relocation?

  2. Excellent post, David. Projects that minimize driving and support the creation of dense transportation-oriented development more than pay for themselves in environmental terms. Nobody questions that it would be desirable to preserve the Hillock, but that is not the relevant question. The relevant question is whether using the Hillock as planned is the least undesirable option. For sure, reducing traffic on campus to the extent that some parking lots could be moved would be a grand thing, but that is not going to happen overnight – that is a project that will take 10-20 years. Facilities relocation has to happen very soon indeed.

  3. If one multi-story parking garage could replace several sprawling parking lots (and no, it’s not the cheapest alternative money-wise), there would be plenty of space to relocate facilities. In addition, this plan would protect our watershed and visually enhance the campus. Build up, not out! The University needs to start doing the right things now — not 10 or 20 years from now when all the (much-vaunted) natural space is gone.

  4. I’d be happy to see these facilities located on an existing parking right on campus (not some distant UMD property across town like the Golob property). Unfortunately these building will be rather unsightly… thus the decision to tuck them behind comcast center in a place most people didn’t even know existed before this controversy. Doubt we’ll be seeing the mail facility, pest control shacks, and elevator repair headquarters in lot 1 or 9 anytime soon…. Fortunately the campus master plan envisions using nearly all surface campus parking lots to absorb UMD’s expansion in the coming years.

  5. Alexander, true that this property is directly uphill from Campus Creek. A lot of property is directly uphill from creeks and all land is in some sort of watershed. Proximity isn’t an indicator of importance to water quality… location of headwaters is. A road divided the Hillock from campus creek. Also, I’m assuming UMD is planning the requisite storm water management on the site.

  6. Thank you for this entry. I’ve always found it a bit odd that the forest was just getting scrapped, but I figured that’s just the way things go when forests are swallowed by huge-rich developers.

  7. David, I see both sides of the argument here, but without you qualifying your statement further, I do disagree with what you say about “proximity isnt an indicator of importance to water quality.” Focusing and concentrating development in the downstream section of a watershed does make the most sense in terms of preserving water quality including concentrating impervious space in a watershed to the 10% that has been shown to start degredation (if that is at all possible in an urbanized area like this). However, proximity to a water body also does indeed impact the water quality, hence, as a start, the importance of forested buffers. Development next to streams results in everything from temperature impacts to a faster route for pollutant discharge directly to the water body. Also of significance is increased volume of flow causing erosion and bringing with it additional pollutants. Additionally, as a scientist working in the area of stormwater quality for many years, and even with the tightening of the stormwater regs in maryland, I still am not entirely comforted by the argument that UMD is planning the requisite sw management for the site. If this project proceeds sw bmps will require maintenance and upkeep to assure failure doesnt occur down the road.

  8. The hillock has a unique and significant role in recharging our coastal plain aquifers. Also, converting this extremely gravelly and porous soil to impervious surface will have a large negative effect on storm water management.

    Most importantly, it is discouraging for those of us who teach about the environment to lose this valuable resource to teach about the science behind these issues.

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