The addition of a new dining hall could pit students against the administration if the university fails to comply with one of its main pillars, according to campus environmentalists.
Students and staff invested in the ecology and sustainability of Western Michigan University’s campus say that the university is being less than transparent in their efforts to build an enormous new dining hall on campus. The 26,688 sq. foot, two-story dining hall will feature seven restaurants varying from Latin to comfort food and seat over 1,000 students from the three Valley residence halls.
If building continues as planned, this state-of-the-art new facility will come at the expense of as many as 500 trees from one of the university’s last remaining forests, and building could begin as early as May 1, according to Conn Macomber, director of Facilities Management.
“I would like to go on the record and make this clear to everyone,” said the biology professor, Dr. Todd Barkman. “I and everyone associated with this movement support the building of this new cafeteria. What I don’t support is destroying the forest to make it happen. We can be economic and sustainable.”
Diane Anderson, vice president of Student Affairs, said that one of the driving factors in choosing the location was economics.
“Choosing that particular site will save several million dollars in costs,” Anderson said. “The other piece is that we really need to look at how the site works with the Valley residence halls.”
Anderson said that the project team believes that building the new dining hall will increase retention and recruitment on campus, and that it is important to locate the facility in the center of the three Valley residence halls so as to have equal distance to each hall.
Barkman and other opponents of the new dining hall site, including students from eco-friendly organizations such as Bio Club and Students for a Sustainable Earth, have proposed that the location be moved 300 feet to the west in the space that currently inhabits a mostly vacant parking lot.
“If you go behind the Valley dorms, there’s a half empty parking lot. There’s tons of parking available, I guarantee enough to suit all Valley complexes,” Barkman said. “I find both of these explanations to be unsupportable stances and ones to be against what I see as our dedication to sustainability on campus.”
Next year, engineering students will occupy Eldridge-Fox (Valley Three), which has not had full occupancy since 2005, because Bigelow-Hoejke will no longer exist. The parking lot may be more heavily occupied because more students will be moving into the Valleys.
Protesters of the location believe that the university is failing to abide by its commitment to sustainability, which is known to be a major point of pride at WMU. The university has gained recognition for its sustainable efforts and WMU President John Dunn has made a point of committing to sustainable projects nationwide.
Dunn signed the Talloires Declaration in 2008, a document created by the Association of University Leaders for a Sustainable Future that commits the university to a list of 10 sustainable promises.
“Regarding the Talloires Declaration, I do not think we are in violation of the commitment,” Dunn said in an email.
Barkman and other opponents of the tree removal believe that by cutting down so many trees, the university is not promoting global sustainability, nor is it following through with environmentally sound operations.
Anderson and Dunn maintain that they do not feel the university is at risk of violating the declaration.
In 2008, WMU became one of the first 29 schools to receive Tree Campus USA certification. The university has been recertified every year since it was added to the list. WMU and Michigan State University are the only two universities in Michigan with Tree Campus certification, according to the university website.
To maintain Tree Campus certification, each campus is required to have an advisory committee, develop and implement a Campus Tree Care Plan, contain a Campus Tree Care program with dedicated annual tree expenditures, observe Arbor Day and perform tree-related service projects, according to the WMU Tree Care Plan and Policies document uploaded on the university’s Tree Campus webpage.
WMU’s Tree Campus Plan states that prior to construction, the Tree Campus committee will review plans and develop tree protection strategies. The committee is required to perform a monetary evaluation of the trees and protect as many trees as possible.
Barkman said that from what he has heard, protocol has not been followed for surveying and evaluating the trees.
“When we take a tree off campus, we do plant two more to make up for the loss of the tree. The landscape design that we are using for this is going to be such that we are not going to put back small trees. We are going to put back different tree sizes to emulate what is there right now. So it’s not going to look like it’s all small trees. There will be a variety of sizes of trees that will be put back,” said Doug Lloyd, project architect.
“This is the greatest attempt to obfuscate that the university has, and they use it year in and year out. The largest trees that they’re planning on planting are only 3 inches in diameter and that’s only 40. The rest are twigs,” Barkman said.
Many of the trees to be razed are full-grown, 80-100 year-old trees measuring at least 3 feet in diameter, according to Barkman.
“You could plant 100 trees and they’re not going to have the value of one of those trees 20 years from now because the saplings aren’t going to have the nuts,” said Dave Lemberg, associate professor of geography and Tree Campus committee member. “They’re not going to replace the habitat value for quite some time. Just in terms of environmental value, having a large chunk of mature trees is worth quite a bit.”
In a presentation earlier this year, David Dakin, director of the planning division for Facilities Management, said that a winter survey of the land plot showed no deer prints, indicating little wildlife in the area.
“Even a skilled tree person can’t evaluate a tree without leaves. The real issue is that the environmental value of forests is not in the winter; it’s in the spring, summer and fall,” said Lemberg. “There’s no need for a deer to go in there in the winter. The food’s all gone.”
Anderson and Lloyd said that the university has been working on this project for quite some time, but Barkman and several student representatives said the majority of students and faculty have only just recently heard the news of the new cafeteria.
“A lot of people think it’s too late. Plan A is to get the site moved. Plan B is to get someone put on the committee. But we want to get someone on the committee either way,” said Weston Hillier, a WMU senior and member of Students for a Sustainable Earth.
Both Anderson and Conn Macomber, director of Facilities Management said that students were involved in the planning process.
Anderson plans to address several of the concerns associated with the tree removal at the next Board of Trustees meeting on April 18.
“My understanding is that the final decision has not yet been made about the siting of the Valley cafeteria,” said Dunn in the email. “Regardless of the final outcome, we will continue to be very careful and sensitive on matters related to our well known commitment to sustainability.”
“We’re willing to do whatever it takes,” Barkman said. “We’ll plan a demonstration if it comes to that. We’ll chain ourselves to the trees if we have to.”