Legal Environmentalism

by Alison Share, Environmental Public Policy Associate, Crowell & Moring LLP

Today, Loose Leaf welcomes its third regular guest blogger, Alison Share, who will be joining us on the fourth Tuesday of each month. Unlike the rest of current blogging team, Alison comes from outside the nonprofit world: She’s a law associate who works in torts and public policy, which often overlaps into the environmental world, so we’re excited by the new perspective she’ll be bringing to the blog each month. So without further ado, take it away Alison.~K&M

I always find introductions to be a little bit tricky. How to be memorable without being obnoxious; how to amuse your listener without being boorish? I’m not sure that I know how to balance that line. Inevitably, I find myself either cowering in the corner afraid to go near it or running headlong over it like a schoolchild hurling themselves at the arms of the opposing team in a rousing game of Red Rover.

Regardless, here I am. The newest member of the Loose Leaf team, and it’s an honor to be here. Unlike the rest of your faithful bloggers, I’m a bit of an interloper — I don’t work for American Forests. Instead, I am drawn to American Forests purely by love. In 2001, I spent five glorious months working on organic farms in New Zealand. I worked on the land of a registered arborist and on the land of a biologist looking to restore native trees to the land. I once helped plant 1,000 feijoa trees over a single weekend. Another time, I spent two full days in a box canyon planting kauri trees and ended up with blisters, along with feelings of “weary to the bone in a good way,” galore.

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Steven Chase/USFWS

In 2004, I took a trip with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) through Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Northern Alaska. There, I saw decades-old trees that were only one or two feet high. In the far north, where there is only sunlight for a few months of the year, the lush growth that we enjoy here on East Coast is unimaginable. That trip to ANWR changed my life. I left my job as a college lacrosse coach and launched myself headlong into the unknown world of law. After I graduated from Vermont Law School, I took another NOLS trip — this time with crampons and an ice ax up to the summit of Mt. Baker in the North Cascade Mountains.

So where does this leave me? Honestly? Someplace fairly unexpected. I am currently an associate at the Washington, D.C., law firm of Crowell & Moring. I practice in the torts group, as well as in the public policy group. My policy work focuses mostly on the remediation of sites that are contaminated. Most of this proceeds under either the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) or the unwieldy-named Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA or Superfund). RCRA controls, from “cradle to grave,” the handling and disposal of both hazardous and non-hazardous materials, while CERCLA provides the statutory framework to clean up sites contaminated by hazardous materials. My work also includes supporting companies with new technologies, either for remediation or for alternative sources of energy.

It is from a standpoint of legal environmentalism that I hope to offer you a different perspective every fourth Tuesday of the month. I will be highlighting a news article, a court decision or a legal topic that is worth exploring a little more in-depth. As a lawyer, I can offer a legal perspective on issues. But as a lawyer who loves the environment, I hope to provide you that perspective with an environmentally conscious twist. I aim to educate and entertain while limiting the bad puns (but no guarantees).

Thank you very much for taking part of your day to read this post. Please leave any questions or comments below, and I will do my best to answer them all. Until my return next month, a few words to ponder:

“A nation that destroys its soils destroys itself. Forests are the lungs of our land, purifying the air and giving fresh strength to our people. ”
–Franklin D. Roosevelt


Fun in the Forest

by Loose Leaf Team

By Katrina Marland

So far this Earth Month, we’ve been looking at a lot of the great benefits that forests provide, from mitigating climate change to providing homes for wildlife and managing water flow in our cities. But today, let’s look at a completely different thing that forests provide for us: Fun!

hiking through the forest

Photo credit: Miguel Vieira

Forests are like amusement parks, only with more variety. When it comes to recreation, there’s very little that the forests around the U.S. don’t offer. You can hike, bike, ski, snowshoe, swim, kayak, raft, canoe, climb, camp, photograph, explore and learn. And that’s just the beginning. You can see giant trees, bizarre plants, unusual animals, glaciers, geysers and more. You can use forests to relax and de-stress or to work out, amp up and get your blood pumping. All you have to do to take advantage of this is find the park or forest nearest you. Here are just a few of the great examples of how you can get out there and have some fun.

Take a Hike!
Just about every park or forest can offer you some great hiking, but the arguable king of trails in the U.S. is the Appalachian Trail. This 2,181-mile trail stretches from Mount Katahdin, Maine, to Springer Mountain, Georgia. It passes through 14 states, including miles of wilderness, forests and national parks. You can pick it up at any point along its route and hike sections as long or short as you like — either way, you’re guaranteed a great view. Or, if you’re really intense, you can try the whole thing.

Not located out east? That’s ok, check out the Pacific Crest Trail (2,663 miles) if you’re out west or the Continental Divide Trail (3,100 miles) if you’re in the Rockies. There’s something for everyone, as you can see from our list of the best hiking trails in the U.S.

Rafting the lower rogue river

Photo credit: USDA Forest Service

Rolling on the River
If moving along on the water is more your style, there are always a lot of options, from rivers to lakes. One of the most famous in the U.S., of course, is the Colorado River. Stretching from the Colorado Rockies to the Gulf of Mexico, the river offers 1,450 miles of adventure for rafters, kayakers, canoeists and other paddlers, whether beginners or experienced adrenaline junkies. It passes through no fewer than 11 national parks, as well as number of national forests and state parks.

Camp Out
Sometimes a day trip just isn’t enough — you want to stay out in nature day and night. This means it’s time to break out the tents because you’re going camping! Whether it’s in your back yard or out in the wilderness, camping can be a fantastic getaway.

camping

Photo credit: Miguel Vieira

Yosemite National Park is one of the most popular sites for camping in the U.S., but you can have fun with camping just about anywhere. Check out this list of top camping sites in national parks or head on over to the USDA Forest Service to find a national forest near you.

Also, keep your eyes peeled for a feature article on camping across the U.S., coming in the summer issue of American Forests magazine.

Can’t get away from the city? Enjoy the trees in your city park, whether it’s on the scale of the 843-acre Central Park in New York City, or the cozier green space in your neighborhood.

While we’re talking about fun outdoors, this week is National Park Week. From April 21 to April 29, all national parks are admission-free, so don’t forget to take advantage!

 


Happy Earth Day!

by Loose Leaf Team

By Katrina Marland & Michelle Werts

Hiking in Redwood Regional Park

Credit: Miguel Vieira/Flickr

What does Earth Day mean to you? Maybe it offers an opportunity to volunteer in your community, cleaning a local park or sprucing up the landscaping outside of a school or office building. Or maybe Earth Day is another day to get outside and enjoy our beautiful planet on a long hike or bike ride. Whatever you decide to do, we’d love to hear about it. Join the conversation below or on Facebook and Twitter, and let us know what you did to celebrate this Earth Day.

Earth Day also offers an excellent opportunity for all of us to think about how what we do every day affects our environment and how we can cut back on our energy use to reduce our carbon footprint. Worried about yours? You can calculate it by using our Carbon Calculator! Perhaps make a pledge to take a bus or train to work a few days a week, leaving the car in the garage. Or, instead of buying that pallet of bottled water, invest in a filter for your faucet or a filtering pitcher for your fridge — and shut the faucet off while brushing your teeth to save gallons of water per year. And make sure you flip the light switch when you leave a room and turn down the thermostat when you leave the house — it’s a drain on our precious resources to illuminate, cool or heat an empty room.

The best part is, all of these Earth-saving strategies can also end up saving you money. Saving green by going green? That’s a concept we can all get behind.

As you know, our forests and trees are excellent conservationists. Trees absorb rainfall and act as natural water purifiers, ensuring a clean and plentiful water supply. A tree close to your property can provide shade for an outdoor air-conditioning unit and your house itself, cutting down on the amount of energy you need to use to cool your home. And, perhaps most importantly, trees and forests play a critical role in removing carbon dioxide from our atmosphere, which helps slow the rate at which our planet heats and may help solve what is quickly becoming a global climate-change crisis.

So, in addition to forgoing those plastic bottles, what else can you do this Earth Day to help our forests improve our planet? You can get out there and plant a tree or two with a local tree-planting group. If you don’t have one in your community, you can support our tree-planting efforts in every state in the U.S. by making a donation to American Forests. Take the opportunity today to go visit a local park or forest and admire the peace a tree canopy can provide. We promise that you’ll be glad you did.

Happy Earth Day 2012 from your friends at American Forests!

Mount Diablo Regional Trail in California

View from Briones to Mount Diablo Regional Trail in California. Credit: Miguel Vieira/Flickr


Small But Mighty

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

When I first heard of American Forests’ National Big Tree Program, I instantly envisioned towering, giant trees — the kind that hurt your neck when you try to take in all their grandeur. But, my awe of those redwoods and sequoias was soon replaced by a love for the “tiny titans.”

Reverchon hawthorn

Texas' Reverchon hawthorn, the smallest tree on the 2012 National Register of Big Trees. Credit: American Forests

As their name implies, the tiny titans are small in comparison to some of their big-tree brethren, but they are still the biggest of their species because not all trees are destined to become 200-plus feet tall. Some are mighty at less than 20 feet tall. So, the week before we unveil the complete list of 760-plus champion trees, I wanted to pay tribute to the smallest big trees on the list.

    • Smallest Big Tree: Texas’ Reverchon hawthorn
      This champion tree repeats its reign as the smallest champion on the National Register of Big Trees, which it first joined last year. It has a mere 21 points to its name at 9 feet tall, 11 inches around and an average crown of 5.5 feet. Now, for those big-tree followers out there, the inclusion of this tree on the list at all might seem a little suspect. Is it too small to be a big tree?

      The USDA Forest Service defines a tree as being 13 feet tall with a trunk circumference of 9 and a half inches at 4 and half feet above the ground, and this is the measurement that American Forests uses to define a tree. So, how did the Reverchon hawthorn make the list without being 13 feet tall? Well, Reverchon hawthorns are trees, but they don’t get much taller than this champion — hence, it being the champion — so on the list it goes via a special exemption.

Texas redbud

National champion Texas redbud in Connecticut. Credit: American Forests

  • Newest Smallest Champs: Missouri’s common prickly-ash and Connecticut’s Texas redbud
    Both of these champions will be crowned next Friday with the release of the 2012 register. The common prickly-ash is actually the second-smallest tree on the list with only 22 points, whereas the Texas redbud champion, which is located far from Texas, is just a hair larger at 28 points.
  • Tallest of the Smallest: Texas’ huajillo
    This tree is tied for eighth smallest tree on the register at 32 points, but of the top 10 smallest trees, it claims honors for being the tallest at 21 feet. What a showoff.

Beyond their size, the other thing I love about these small trees is how they are often found not far away in some forest, but right in our backyards. For instance, the Reverchon hawthorn is in Dallas and the Texas redbud is in Hartford. These small trees remind us that big trees are anywhere and everywhere. You never know: You could be driving or walking by a champion tree every day. So start looking around to see if you can find a big tree in your neighborhood — the pickings are prime, as we have more than 200 species still seeking their champions.

Coming next week: The full 2012 National Register of Big Trees!


Father of National Parks

by Loose Leaf Team

By Katrina Marland

John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt in Yosemite National Park

John Muir (right) with Theodore Roosevelt (left) atop Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park (Photo credit: Library of Congress)

The conservation movement has been fortunate enough to have a number of truly wonderful figures over the years. Few of these people, however, are as recognizable a name as John Muir. This man was a naturalist, a writer, an adventurer and above all an advocate for wilderness. His work was so influential that many call him the “Father of National Parks.”

This Saturday is John Muir’s birthday — he was born April 21, 1838. So we’re taking a moment today to look just a few of the many places we still enjoy today, thanks to his work.

Yosemite National Park
In many ways, Muir was far ahead of his time in recognizing both cause — his theory of glaciation in the Sierra turned the theories of the day on their ears — and effect in the natural world. He strongly believed that one of the greatest threats to his beloved Yosemite was the continued spread of livestock. Though the area was owned by the state, the public used it as their own without concern for the forests or grasslands; sheep, goats and cows were permitted to graze across the region. Through a series of articles in the magazine Century, Muir advocated strongly that the lands be protected and never turned into grazing pastures. His writings eventually led to the 1890 act of Congress that created Yosemite National Park.

Mount Rainier National Park
At age 50, John Muir’s travels led him to Washington’s Mount Rainier. Along with several companions, Muir climbed the 14,410 feet to the mountain’s peak in what was only the fifth recorded ascent. He wrote about his experience in Ascent of Mount Rainier, which helped to bring the location into the public eye, and he became a strong advocate for the region, wanting to protect the area’s forests, meadows, glaciers and, of course, the mountain itself from development of any kind. On March 2, 1899, Mount Ranier National Park officially became the fifth national park in the U.S.

Sequoia National Park
This park is home to some of the most impressive trees one could ever hope to see, including the long-standing big tree national champion “General Sherman,” a giant sequoia and one of the largest living trees in the world. Muir walked through these groves of giant sequoias and thought them to be among the most fascinating of ecosystems — certainly worth whatever protection humans could afford them. He was a strong voice in preserving the area known today as the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park.

John Muir in the Sierra Nevada

John Muir in the Sierra Nevada mountains

In his decades of working to protect natural places, one of Muir’s greatest and most valuable attributes was his eloquence, which poured through in every book, article, or letter he ever wrote. From his words alone, people could see the beauty of places they had never been and were willing to take up the cause. So it seems only right to leave you with words from Muir himself:

“Any fool can destroy trees. They cannot run away; and if they could, they would still be destroyed — chased and hunted down as long as fun or a dollar could be got out of their bark hides. … It took more than three thousand years to make some of the trees in these Western woods — trees that are still standing in perfect strength and beauty, waving and singing in the mighty forests of the Sierra. Through all the wonderful, eventful centuries God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand straining, leveling tempests and floods; but he cannot save them from fools — only Uncle Sam can do that.”
~John Muir, “The American Forests,” Our National Parks, 1901

 


Protecting Forests: On the Ground and in Congress

by Amanda Tai

San Gabriel Mountain Wilderness. Credit: Rennett Stowe/Flickr

This week, Congress is busy with hearings and debate on a number of land-use bills, quite a few of which impact our forests.

Yesterday, I attended a House Natural Resources Subcommittee hearing to discuss the Land Acquisition to Cut National Debt Act (or LAND Act). Though cutting the national debt is a topic that concerns us all, this bill actually threatens a wide range of conservation projects, including the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which creates and protects wildlife refuges, parks and recreational areas. If the bill is passed, it would mean that the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service and Forest Service’s federal land acquisition would be limited: They can acquire more land, but in doing so, they have to give up authority on the same amount of land. So, basically, if any of those agencies wanted to accept proposals for new conservation projects and restoration efforts that would require new federal lands, they could only do so by reducing the support for or eliminating a project already in the works. Some committee members think that limiting these activities would shift the focus more onto improving management on the lands for which these agencies are already responsible. A good idea in theory, but not in practice. Consensus among agency witnesses and even some committee members is that the bill wouldn’t make a dent in the federal deficit, but constant monitoring to stay under the acre limit would actually make land management more time-consuming and costly. Considering that these agencies are responsible for the care of some of the most beautiful, valuable and iconic natural places in the country, this sounds like a bad idea.

Another bill gaining attention this week is the Sportsmen’s Heritage Act, introduced by Representative Jeff Miller (R-FL). On the face of it, the bill deals mostly with guidelines for hunters and anglers. Unfortunately, it also contains language that threatens America’s wilderness. The bill includes measures that would allow, for the first time, road construction, motorized vehicle use, logging and development in areas that have been protected as wilderness areas. These new activities could have a wide-ranging impact on wildlife and ecosystems that have already been declared important to preserve. The bill passed last night with a vote of 274 to 146 — a victory that some see as an election-year tactic by House Republicans. Thankfully, the threat to our wildernesses isn’t going unanswered. Representative Raúl Grijalva (ranking member on the Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands) says that Democrats are working on a quick response. The bill goes on to the Senate next for consideration, so hope is not lost.

If you are concerned about this issue, let your members of Congress know by posting your concerns to their Facebook pages.

Sample text:

Please vote against the Sportsmen’s Heritage Act, H.R. 4089. While the bill says it protects hunting and fishing in wilderness, it would actually open up Wilderness Areas to motorized vehicles and other harmful development and hurt hunting and fishing in those places. Please oppose this bill until the anti-wilderness provision is completely removed from the legislation. Thank you.


Keeping Sewage Out of Our Water

by Melinda Housholder, Urban Forests Program Director

Sewage in our rivers? Yuck!

Combined sewer overflow on the Woonasquatucket River in Providence, Rhode Island

Combined sewer overflow on the Woonasquatucket River in Providence, Rhode Island, and heavy algal bloom. Credit: Christopher Deacutis/Narragansett Bay Estuary Program

I was really disturbed when I learned a few years ago about combined sewer systems — where sewage and rainwater is collected in one pipe system — and just how many cities have these. Although no longer built into new communities, more than 770 older cities still use their combined sewer that was built back in the day, including my own city of Washington, D.C. Combined sewers may have once been thought to be convenient for urban landscapes, as they collect the wastewater from your toilets, the wastewater from industrial sites and the water that drains from rooftops and roads after rainfall (called stormwater) and take all this combined water to a facility for treatment. Everything is treated at once and then is more “safely” disposed of into a nearby stream or river; the fish can continue to swim along safely, and you can continue to wade around without much thought. Makes sense, right?

With a small amount of rain, this system works just fine. Combined sewers are built to handle the average amount of water flows. The catastrophic issue, however, is that during a large rainfall or snowmelt event, the volume of stormwater often exceeds the capacity of the sewer pipe. And, to prevent pipe breakage or sewage backup, as part of the plan, Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) areas are designed to allow a portion of the untreated combined wastewater to overflow into the nearest stream, river or lake.

Combined Sewer System illustration

How a combined sewer system operates. Credit: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

Talk about water pollution! These CSOs allow not just human waste (in case that wasn’t gross enough), but all sorts of industrial waste, toxic materials and debris to go directly into our environment. Thus, they are a major source of ecological problems and human-health concerns. In a December 2001 report to Congress, the Center for Marine Conservation states that “[s]ome of the common diseases [found in these areas] include hepatitis, gastric disorders, dysentery and swimmer’s ear. Other forms of bacteria found in untreated waters can cause typhoid, cholera and dysentery.” Eww.

Well, at least some cities are trying to improve this. Last week, it was very exciting to read that the EPA signed off on Philadelphia’s $2.4 billion green plan to stop sewer overflows in what the E&E News calls the “strongest endorsement yet of the green infrastructure technology.” With the extensive use of green infrastructure — grass, trees, porous pavement and retention ponds — this will make Philadelphia’s new initiative the first nearly “all-green” plan for addressing sewer overflows.

So, how exactly do trees help? As we reveal on our Forests & Cities page, rather than rainwater falling directly onto rooftops or pavement and rushing into the sewer, trees intercept this water first, and less water ends up in the pipes. With more trees planted, even less stormwater will enter the pipes, eliminating the need to overflow into the local stream or river!

In the next few weeks, the EPA will unveil a new regulation expected to promote the use of green infrastructure and require new developments to absorb rainfall rather than letting it rush into overburdened sewers. There is hope that the increasing support for green infrastructure will help avoid the water pollution caused by combined sewers. I’m looking forward to the day when I can enjoy a large rainfall and not be concerned about the horrible consequences it may have on the local waterways.


At Home in the Forest

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

Baby gopher tortoise

Baby gopher tortoise. Credit: Randy Browning/USFWS

When you read the words forests and wildlife, I’m sure the first visions that pop into your head are pictures of deer foraging in the understory, squirrels running up trunks and birds flitting in the canopy. Forests, though, aren’t home just to our mammalian and avian friends. What would your reaction be if I told you that certain species of tortoises require forests to survive?

Shocking, yes? Only four tortoise species are found in North America, and one them, the gopher tortoise, is particularly fond of longleaf pine trees. Gopher tortoises make their homes, or burrows, in the deep, well-drained soils around longleaf pine trees. Over the course of their 50-60 year life, they’ll live in multiple burrows, and when they abandon one, other wildlife quickly claim the remnants for their own purposes. Gopher tortoises also feed on grasses and plants in the area, helping with seed dispersal. These are just two of the reasons that the gopher tortoise is considered a keystone species in America’s southeast.

Unfortunately, longleaf pine forests have been disappearing over the centuries. Four hundred years ago, America’s southeast had 60-90 million acres of longleaf pine forest, and now, only a few million acres remain. As the forests have gone, so have the tortoises: They’re now listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Gopher tortoises aren’t alone in their plight, as our forests are full of wildlife species that rely on forests to survive and have been affected by their destruction:

Grizzly bear cubs

Grizzly bear cubs. Credit: USFWS

  • Hundreds of years ago, grizzly bears numbered in tens of thousands. Now, less than 1,400 remain in the wild, and one of their primary food sources, whitebark pine seeds, are rapidly disappearing in the West due to blister rust and mountain pine beetle infestation.
  • Red-cockaded woodpeckers, like the gopher tortoise, rely on longleaf pine to build their homes and are also endangered because of habitat loss. Like the tortoise, their abandoned homes make good homes for other species as well.
  • Jaguarundi, a slender-bodied wild cat, has seen its brushland, lightly wooded habitat in Texas decreased by 90 percent, and it’s been endangered for the last 25 years.

Because of the strong benefits that forests provide for wildlife, from shelter to food, dozens of our Global ReLeaf projects each year focus on restoration efforts for wildlife. Plus, our policy team advocates for forest issues that are of particular importance to our furry, winged, hard-shelled and scaly friends. To find out more about the connections between forests and wildlife, how we’re working to help and how you can help, too, visit our Forests & Wildlife Habitat page.


Champions Lost

by Loose Leaf Team

By Katrina Marland

When the National Register of Big Trees is released, it is always exciting. There are new species and new champions, often with amazing proportions and incredible stories. Unfortunately, this often means that other champion trees have lost their crowns — usually a bitter pill to swallow for those involved in achieving it in the first place. From the person who discovers, measures and nominates the tree to the landowner of the property on which it sits, a dethroned tree can be tough to take. New champions also mean another win or loss in a “sport” that has become competitive on many levels, with individuals, counties and even states playing tug-of-war over who has the most champions to their name. So let’s take a look at a few of the champions that will be losing their titles when the spring edition of the Register comes out later this month. Keep in mind that champions are determined using a pretty simple equation: circumference (in inches) + height (in feet) + 1/4th of the average crown spread (in feet) = total points.

dethroned national champion black locust tree

The former national champion black locust tree in Livingston, New York (Photo credit: The Davey Tree Expert Company)

First up, there’s the valley oak. The 2011 champion in Tulare, California — with 409 points — is losing its crown to a monster of a tree in Mendocino, which has a whopping total of 628 points. I believe they call that a knockout punch.

Next, we have the black locust champion in Livingston, New York. This tree is losing its title for a rather sad reason: No one has re-measured it. To be eligible for the National Register, trees have to be re-measured at least once every 10 years to be sure that they’re still alive and well. Our state coordinators and tree hunters do their best to re-measure their champs, but if they can’t the title is lost. The new black locust champion is located in New Hampshire, and even though its 300 total points place it at 123 less than the previous champ, it retains the title — for now.

Another champion all too familiar with the 10-year rule is the incense-cedar in California. This massive 645-point tree was dethroned last year because of it. But this year, it was re-measured and will regain its crown, taking out the current 283-point champion in Henderson, North Carolina.

Then, there’s the American elm. The title for tree has been ping-ponging its way around various states over the years, landing in Michigan for the 2002 Register, Tennessee in 2004 and 2006, then Maryland in 2008 and Ohio in 2010 and 2011. This year it relocates again to Iberville, Louisiana, with a total of 454 points — that’s 38 more than the previous champion.

Curious what other champion trees have lost their crowns and which ones may have replaced them? Stay tuned every Friday as we continue to count down to the release of the spring edition of the 2012 National Register of Big Trees on April 27.

 


Pigskin Versus White Oak

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

American football first emerged on the sports scene about 140 years ago, around the same time that Virginia Tech was being founded in Blacksburg, Virginia. More than 200 years prior to those moments — back in the same century that America’s first permanent English settlement, Jamestown, was being established — some white oak trees took root in Blacksburg. Today, those white oaks, which could live to be 600 years old, are experiencing a mid-life crisis: The Virginia Tech athletic department wants to cut them down to build a new indoor athletics practice facility, primarily for the football team.

Virginia Tech's Stadium Woods

A satellite view of the Virginia Tech campus, showing Lane Stadium the lower left with Stadium Woods running along the right of the image. The area outlined in orange is the site proposed for the new practice facility. Credit: Google Maps

Adjacent to Virginia Tech’s football stadium is a 15-acre wooded area known as Stadium Woods. According to scientific estimates, these woods contain at least 45 trees that are 250 years old and older. They’ve born witness to the American Revolution, the creation of the commonwealth of Virginia and the formation of Hokie Nation. And their environmental value is profound.

You see, Stadium Woods represents an old-growth forest, which is characterized by a combination of old trees, young trees and dead trees; woody debris on the forest floor; many canopy layers; and remnants from fallen, large trees. Old-growth forests are rare — at the last estimate in the early 90s, less than one percent of America’s southeast forests were defined as old growth. Even rarer are old-growth forests that are accessible to people, as most of them have survived on rugged, inhospitable land. Stadium Woods, though, is there for all visitors to Virginia Tech’s campus to enjoy, and it provide a unique habitat for hundreds of wildlife species, from songbirds to mammals to insects. Because of their size, old-growth white oaks store oodles of carbon and conversely are pretty efficient air purifiers. Plus, they’re survivors, meaning their research value in helping scientists discover preferred growing conditions, disease resistance and more is significant. Old-growth forests, therefore, are something to be treasured and preserved.

Stadium Woods’ opponent in this fight is formidable, though, as football is a beloved American pastime and represents millions of dollars of value to the school, despite the hefty price tag of $25 million for the new indoor practice facility. A new practice facility would create more efficient practices and would lure more high-level recruits. Better recruits means more championships which means more dollar signs. But should this profit come at the expense of ancestral trees?

Many are saying no, including the Virginia Tech Faculty Senate and the Commission on Student Affairs, and are pressuring the school’s administrators to find another solution, another location, another something to preserve these living legacies. Virginia Tech President Charles W. Steger appointed a committee earlier this year to look into the debate and expects its report by June 1. If you’d like to show your support for preserving Stadium Woods, visit the Friends of Stadium Woods website to sign a petition and find other ways to help.