As a construction fence is scheduled to go up on Monday around the trees scheduled for removal in the South Neighborhood construction plans, University Spokeswoman Paula Davis said Western Michigan University’s Tree Campus USA status is not at risk.
“I'm told this project will not affect WMU's status as a tree campus,” Davis said.
According to WMU’s 2016 Tree Campus USA document, for ten years WMU has reapplied annually to commit to five standards: maintain a tree advisory committee that creates a campus tree-care plan, dedicate annual expenditures for the trees on campus, observe Arbor Day and support a student service-learning project.
“WMU has got a beautiful campus and it shows and there’s a reason for it — we put money into it,” WMU Biological Sciences Professor Dr. Todd Barkman said.
Barkman serves on the Tree Campus USA committee which consists of students, staff and community members. He said the group meets once a year to create the tree care policy and assure it will be implemented. The committee’s mission statement as of 2016 is as follows: “The WMU Tree Campus USA Policy and Standards Committee’s purpose is to celebrate trees and demonstrate a commitment to the preservation and protection of trees. The committee shall be involved in the planning process of campus construction projects and provide expertise related to tree risk assessment, selection, placement and evaluation.”
In this phase of the South Neighborhood housing footprint, the University encounters 58 trees, Davis said.
“Nine of those trees will remain. One of those trees is diseased and therefore needs to come down. 12 trees will be relocated and 36 trees will be removed,” Davis said.
Barkman said as a member of the committee, he has only seen conceptual designs for the project and has yet to see the actual building plans.
“It’s hard for an average person like me to understand why a building couldn’t be shifted 100 to 200 feet to allow for the most mature trees to stand,” Barkman said. “It just seems that WMU doesn’t uphold those standards that we’ve worked pretty hard to achieve.”
Davis said that per University policy, for every tree removed, two new ones are planted. As a result, there will be 75 trees planted on campus after those scheduled are removed. Barkman, however, said those trees “are in no way comparable to a 70-to-100-year-old tree.”
“They’re worthless to me for teaching purposes,” Barkman said. “They sequester a tiny fraction of the carbon dioxide that a mature tree sequesters in its trunk and in its many branches and such. Try planting 100 of them for every large tree that is cut down. There’s no room on campus for 100 new seedlings.”
In his 18 years at WMU, Barkman has used the trees on campus to teach his botany students by spending four hours identifying trees and plants on campus two days a week.
“It’s critical to have plants available, my laboratory is the outdoors,” Barkman said. “If a student has never been outside and seen living plants, they’ve got no hope. They wouldn’t even get (a) job.”
The new construction plans will not mark the first time that Barkman has had to adjust his teaching due to University developments.
“I can’t even tell you the number of trees that are gone now (due to construction on campus),” Barkman said.
In his time at WMU, Barkman has witnessed the loss of an “amazing” Shagbark Hickory that used to be in the parking lot of what is now the Wesley Campus Ministry at WMU. Additionally, he used to show his students multiple trees where the current Westernview Apartments are. The 2013 plans to build the Valley Dining Center at the base of Valley Two would have removed a “huge chunk” of Barkman’s “outdoor laboratory” had the University not compromised with those against the construction plans.
“It was definitely a wonderful collaboration between many parties, but probably the bottom line was the students had to push,” Barkman said. “The area is a stunning example of what can happen if you work with the existing landscape rather than wipe the slate clean every time. Wiping the slate clean is literally what every single campus development has done in recent memory. That seems to be the approach to doing things.”
In 2012, the University removed a row of trees outside of the Miller Auditorium to place solar panels. Barkman wrote a letter to the editor in the Western Herald titled “Are two trees better than one?” regarding the campus policy in place.
“They were trying to save on carbon emissions, yet what they do is cut down a bunch of trees,” Barkman said. “That was very ridiculous.”
Still facing the possibility of losing his outdoor laboratory years later, Barkman said he doesn’t think the two-trees-for-every-one strategy will work much longer.
“It’s possible that since the Tree Campus committee has felt so disengaged or disenfranchised that the committee may no longer feel that it can legitimately meet the expectations that are required for being Tree Campus USA, and no longer meet and no longer apply to be recognized as Tree Campus USA,” Barkman said. “If the campus climate is such that it is, I don’t think there will be anybody who will want to be associated with that process anymore. I think that’s the danger that we are running here.”
Davis said that there are many factors that play into the decision to build anywhere on campus.
“I want to emphasize that with every project, we try to save as many trees as possible,” Davis said. “Among the thousands of factors considered for building projects, we have to balance the presence of trees, an area's infrastructure, site orientation to the sun, site orientation to prevailing winds and even the potential for bird strikes. All of these criteria are considered, and then you develop the best approach possible given the many, many factors involved.”
In the current plans for development, Barkman runs the risk of losing a mature American beech tree on campus — something he compared to telling an art class that all of their blue paint is being taken away.
“I can’t take students to go see a mature American Beech without getting in a car and driving off campus,” Barkman said.
Additionally, a mature White Ash is also in the footprint. Barkman said 98 percent of White Ashes in Michigan are gone.
“Those are seriously threatened by emerald ash borer and all the mature ash trees have been all but destroyed by emerald ash borer,” Barkman said. "I can’t take students to go see another big ash tree. That’s it. Landscape services has spent thousands of dollars to keep it alive. The only reason it’s alive is because they’ve been treating it and to undo all that good work they’ve done over the last decade is really disappointing.”
Despite the trees being removed, Barkman says he has hope for the University and sees strong partners in Facilities Management and WMU Landscaping.
“I would just like to see some meaningful compromise such that that outdoor classroom wouldn’t be completely removed,” Barkman said.