At the end of January, the University of Maryland, College Park, released a statement confirming that they will purchase an abandoned Washington Post Plant just off their main campus for roughly 12 million dollars. The University plans to relocate facilities currently housed on the east part of campus to this location so that part of the campus can become an entertainment plaza and two huge graduate student housing apartments. Prior to the University’s land purchase, development plans had slated ten acres of forest on the north part of campus to be developed to relocate those same facilities.
Why would the University suddenly change plans? How could ten acres of trees be more important than 12 million dollars? What could change the sprawl and development that has dominated the Maryland landscape for years? The answer may seem quite ridiculous to some and quite obvious to others.As simple as it sounds, the forest -- now known as the wooded hillock -- was saved because it was the right thing to do. The University didn’t accurately consult its community before choosing the initial relocation site. The ethics of many students and faculty demanded development that excluded the destruction of a productive ecosystem. The hillock was saved because there were a number of people in the community whose inner values demanded something better than business as usual.
In modern times, most would argue that 12 million dollars is worth way more than 10 acres of forest. The majority of College Park residents would have probably allowed the hillock to be paved and developed if someone had never called foul play. And many students expressed complete apathy -- the majority of which probably never gave the forest any value other than something that was written about in the newspaper.
In May 2009, The Diamondback, a student-run independent newspaper, published the views of a few students:
"I went there for a bio class to study where the tornado went through," sophomore letters and sciences major Lauren Higgins said. "I don't think that land is helping the university, really - from a business standpoint, how much revenue will it bring in? From that standpoint, they should definitely [develop] it."
Sophomore letters and sciences major Tod Tanis said the situation is being blown out of proportion.
"Why is this so big?" Tanis said. "I've never had a class back there, I've never been back there, to be honest I didn't even know the woods were back there."
Sophomore pre-veterinary medicine major Destiny Coleman agreed.
"It's not like 'Oh, let me take this class so I can study something significant in the woods'," Coleman said. "It's just woods. People just smoke weed back there."
To most people in my community, the forests around them have no value. Their existence is only an afterthought to economy and digital screens. To some, it's a haven of nature. A reminder of the kind of upland forests that used to dominate the Maryland landscape. The courage of a few outweighed the apathy of many to bring attention to the issue and ultimately preserve the space. Here is my story of how the hillock was saved.
On a chilly Sunday evening in December 2008, members of the Student Sustainability Council held a late-night meeting on campus. We used to discuss measures that would make our campus more “sustainable" and advocate for their implementation. Sometimes we were listened to, rarely were we allowed to have active participation. Most of the time, we'ld be told the University is working on it and/or they don’t have the economic means to change a present practice.
That December night, we were joined by a university employee we'll call Deep Green. Deep Green disclosed the University’s present plans to raise 10 acres of trees on the north part of our campus to relocate the University’s east campus facilities -- a motor pool, a bus parking lot, the facilities management building, a mail facility and some maintenance sheds. Before this point, there were few students who knew of these plans. The University hoped to keep the relocation under wraps. Detailed plans of the relocation were omitted from the east campus website until student activists notified Facility Management of the mistake. The University knew that if student environmentalists knew the plans, there would be dissent.
At first, the six or seven of us present were obviously pissed off. I think one of the first ideas we had was to paint the administration building green for their blatant attempts at branding themselves green, meanwhile privately operating with the paradigm of limitless growth. It’s called greenwashing -- learn to recognize it! Then we calmed ourselves and decided we had to finish the semester before we did anything that might get us kicked out of school. At that point, the forest -- soon to be immortalized as “The Wooded Hillock” -- rested in the hands of a few disheveled students dedicated enough to make it to the stamp student union on a chilly Sunday night.
We finished the semester and dispersed for winter break. By the time we had returned for spring semester 2009, Joanna Calabrese, Phil Hannam and I had already met with other concerned faculty members and began to grasp the full complexities of the issue. We learned that:
1). The decision was made without student and faculty consent.
2). The University had to absorb its costs for the relocation, while...
3). The developers would profit off of the prime location in College Park, and the university would profit off of sales occurring on campus.
4). The University did not have enough money to build their parking garages for the motor pools and bus parking. So, instead they wanted to build on a productive ecosystem.
5). The University declared the hillock the most environmentally sensitive choice of all the sites they considered.
6). The developer reported that the 10 acres of forest needed for relocation were of “low quality.”
At that point we weren't sure if we could or should stop the relocation. Most involved generally supported the "smart growth" potential of the east campus development and didn't want to prevent it's proposed environmental benefits. Regardless, we began by identifying and contacting our potential allies and acquiring their opinion. There were a lot of professors, students and decision makers we thought would be sympathetic to our cause, so we brought the debate to a vote in the undergraduate student government.
On February 8, 2009, the undergraduate student government voted unanimously to encourage the University to reconsider its decision to develop the hillock. We were inspired by the support, but unsure how to best proceed. Joanna set up a meeting to discuss the student position with Facilities Management for March 27th. We had a month to prepare.
For a long time, I didn’t even believe that we could change the fate of the Wooded Hillock. It seemed like another case where our voices came too late in the decision making process. Students, myself included, had just seen a movement to halt the Inter County Connector swiftly stamped out for the same reason. I felt disempowered; I felt that even though we were high ranking student representatives, our voices were unimportant in the grand scheme of making money.
After much thought on what the next best move would be, Joanna and I drafted concessions for the University to follow if they were going to develop the forest. At our meeting, we presented those concessions to Frank Brewer of facilities management. He heralded us for our pragmatism and declared that we were very mature for not wanting to disturb the campus' plans for smart growth. Joanna and I were trying to play it friendly so as to not dismantle our hand before it was dealt, but the whole thing made me feel uneasy.
I remember trying to justify to other student leaders on our campus why it was a good decision to develop the hillock. Joanna and I rationalized that the future of College Park needed the East Campus development to decrease the carbon entering our atmosphere by providing an entertainment center and more beds closer to campus. At that point in my environmentalism, I was still operating with the assumption that getting carbon out of the atmosphere and stopping global warming took precedence over all other endeavors.
But then something changed in me. The only way I can clearly explain this change, is to tell you to go explore the wooded hillock in early April. If you can align yourself with the sounds, growth, and visual splendor of nature; if you could visit the hillock on a dewy morning to hear the bird songs and appreciate some of its plant life. If we could appreciate the incredible diversity of life these 30 acres have to share, no one would ever want to bulldoze such a place. (The total size of the forest is actually 30 acres. The university owns 24, ten acres were slated for development, and there are 6 acres accompanied by an abandoned privately owned house.)
The students and faculty committed to saving the wooded hillock did so, because they understood the importance of this diverse ecosystem to the future of the campus. They also understood the rarity of such an ecosystem in the Maryland suburbs.
I never fully understood what was at the wooded hillock until my friend and native plant expert, Clark Delong, showed me the diversity of plant life in the area. I had never seen the pink lady slipper orchid or the native pinxter azalea. My hydrology teacher, Dr. Prestegaard, told us there were gravel deposits on the hillock from the eroding piedmont plateau everywhere on the hillock. These deposits were now rare as they had been mined heavily at the turn of the century. On the west part of the hillock, a tornado blew through splintering trees and creating a disturbance that allowed an abundant understory of blueberry plants to establish.
By far the coolest aspect of the hillock is that some kids built a three story tree house on three beech trees in the middle of the forest. The tree house even had a Tom Gugliotta poster on the second floor.
It’s funny to me; everyone involved in this movement had their own reasons for wanting to save the Hillock. I can remember Joanna and I addressing students and her saying, “You gotta understand this isn’t just about trees!” and me butting in saying, “Actually, this is about trees!” People laughed, we made an argument, and then we moved on to the next person.
By spring of 2009, the hillock was in full bloom and so was the student resistance to it's development. There was a small contingent of students committed to preserving the hillock. We knew the only way we could affect the decision makers at the University was to get our issue into the press.
We began by re-establishing a plan. I began drafting a proposal that outlined the student and faculty grievances with the hillock. The proposal was meant to be an ultimatum to the University so that if they ignored us, we could take bolder action. This original document still conceded that the University could develop the hillock so long as the university agreed to involve students in a greater movement to improve the health of all campus ecosystems. The demands we made were actually unreasonable, but I didn’t care; I thought the whole relocation was unreasonable. By this time, I was hoping to implement a legacy that would encourage the University to do much more for its environmental management than they already did.
By early May, I was on fire. My entire soul was aflame with the purpose of saving the wooded hillock. I could see this same fire in Phil, Clark, Joanna, Alex, and other members of the Student Sustainability Council. At the last moment, I decided to drop one of my classes (I didn’t need it to graduate) and to make something positive come out of this whole hillock fiasco.
After consulting with Phil, he advised that we not give in so easily; that we should demand the preservation before we start conceding to development. He had a good point. Joanna and I were on board. Phil took my draft, improved the writing, and created an ultimatum that we all signed and delivered to the University President Mote and Vice President of Administrative Affairs Ann Wylie.
That’s when things really started to take off. We spread the word to as many students as possible -- emails, facebook, the whole nine yards. I emailed everyone that I thought might be interested in the cause. I knew that the only chance we had to save the hillock was to make the University look as bad as we possibly could. That meant getting as much media and spreading the word far and wide that the University touts its “green” status publicly, while deciding to cut down 10 acres of forest in privacy. While the entire SGA was partying for the end of the semester, I was in the office writing a press release.
We began focusing our efforts on the May 8th Arboretum designation. The obvious hypocrisy of the University holding a public ceremony to tout its green efforts, while destroying this beautiful ecosystem simply enraged The Student Sustainability Council. We mobilized with signs and organized a “protestabration” during the event. Basically, we celebrated the University's designation as an arboretum, but protested the decision to develop on the wooded hillock. We planned to camp out on the hillock with friends on Friday, May 8. Clark and I organized to take anyone who was interested on a tour of the hillock on Saturday, May 9.
The Baltimore Sun showed up. A reporter called me while I was riding my bike to school. I remember throwing my bike down on Lakeland Road and pacing for nearly an hour, spouting out as many facts as I could to the reporter. He sent a photographer out, and next thing I know, Clark and I are doing a photo shoot on the hillock with The Baltimore Sun.
...To be continued...