Fresno State faculty protests decision to clear 160 mature trees for more parking

Removal part of parking lot redesign; faculty wages protest.

The Fresno BeeMay 24, 2012 

Fresno State faculty members gathered Thursday to express dismay and confusion over the university's decision to chop down 160 mature trees, making room for 600 more parking spaces on the east side of campus.

The faculty members said they were unaware until an email notice from the campus parking administrator Wednesday that plans for remodeling the parking lots included removing the trees, which provided shade for cars, turned fiery colors in fall and served as a living laboratory for biology students.

The university said it will replace most of the trees, but faculty members said it will be years before the new trees will be as lush as those lost.

About 20 faculty members met at the hastily called meeting outside the Leon S. Peters building Thursday afternoon. Most were visibly distraught and angry.

"There was no word prior about this atrocious removal of these old, beautiful trees," said Magda Gilewicz, an English professor who has taught at the university for 22 years. She said professors were off campus on semester break and became aware of the trees' demise Wednesday through a flurry of emails and blogs. Workers began cutting down trees that day, and work is expected to continue today.

She questioned if the university considered environmental issues, as well as aesthetic issues, in the parking lots' redesign. "In Fresno, where we have one of the worst air pollution in the country, we cannot afford to lose any trees," she said.

Fresno State officials have long been proud of their tree-filled campus -- the entire campus was named an arboretum in 1979, and the university touts it on guides. A Treewalk guide includes a stop to view trees that have now been cut down.

Fresno State was "mindful that the campus is an arboretum," said Amy Armstrong, campus parking administrator. "We are replacing trees as part of the project."

She said the university removed 160 trees and plans to plant 148.

Armstrong said the new design allows for a more- organized planting of trees within the parking lots. Most of the existing trees were too big to be transplanted, she said. Some of the trees removed were diseased, but healthy crape myrtles were uprooted and saved.

Some of the new trees will be Chinese pistache, the variety of many of the ones cut down. They will be in 24-inch barrels to allow for larger trees to be planted, Armstrong said. The Chinese pistache was chosen for its high canopy, which provides visibility for better security and for its "beautiful colors -- it makes for a nice view," Armstrong said.

Jon Reelhorn, a member of Tree Fresno and owner of Belmont Nursery, said the university can plant new, improved varieties of trees, including the Keith Davey pistache, which is seedless and has vibrant orange fall color.

"We're certainly an advocate for trees, but we also understand there are times that trees have to be removed for improvements," he said.

Armstrong said faculty members on two committees -- campus planning and the facilities and campus environment liaison committee -- were consulted about the redesign for parking lots A and J. Those lots were chosen because they had a lot of potholes and were in bad condition, she said.

There will not be solar panels over parking stalls, such as in the lot just to the south, she said. The redesign will increase the number of parking spaces from 1,357 to 1,957.

The $4 million project, funded through student parking fees, is scheduled to be completed by Aug. 15, which is in time for the start of the fall semester, the university said.

The committee members were told the trees had to go and ponding basins had to be filled in to maximize the space and create the most parking, Armstrong said. The planning process started early in the spring semester, and there were no objections, she said.

Students were also consulted, Armstrong said.

But Jennifer Rios, a linguistics graduate student, said Thursday she hadn't heard about the plans and "normally, they send out surveys or notice."

The loss of the trees was awful, Rios said, and she questioned the need for more parking spaces. "In four years going here, I've had no trouble finding parking."

Paul Crosbie, a professor in the biology department, said Great Horned owls, the largest owls in California, hunted for prey from the trees. "No one thought they would cut down these big, old trees," he said.

Madhusudan Katti, an associate professor of biology, said the trees served as an outdoor laboratory for his students studying birds in an urban environment. The university should be a leader in sustaining the environment in an urban space, he said. Instead, he said, "clearly, we're putting cars above trees here."

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6310, or @beehealthwriter on Twitter.

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