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.