Several students were surprised to see that four large trees that had once stood in front of the Umbeck Science-Mathematics Center had been cut down on Thursday by landscaping crews.
College officials said that the tree removal was both to clear out several damaged trees as well as to serve as part of a joint Knox-Galesburg plan to improve pedestrian safety on South Street by making room for a sidewalk along West Street, but some students and faculty remain skeptical.
On Friday, KARES members and sophomores Callie Smith and Inez Pena were sitting in a massive stump that had once been one of the trees. They had organized an all-day meditation where the trees had stood as a way of mourning the sudden loss, taking shifts sitting on the stump for several hours.
They felt the decision to cut down the trees had been taken without notifying any campus environmental group.
“I’m kind of surprised how little we were told,” Pena said.
Smith mentioned that the recent forums on landscaping held this week would have been an excellent venue for discussing the issue.
“This should have been brought up [at the forums],” she said.
Both seemed frustrated by the lack of student response to the felling of the trees.
“It’s so weird. Earth Month was last month and now we don’t care about the Earth anymore?” Pena asked.
Students were given a chance to voice objections through the Campus Environment Committee, Director of Facilities Services Scott Maust pointed out, further adding that not one committee member objected to the move when it was first proposed.
Director of Campus Safety John Schlaf said that the decision was taken on the recommendation of the South Street Safety Task Force as a way to improve student walking habits. The trees needed to be removed to construct a sidewalk outside of SMC to help regulate pedestrian traffic, he said.
“It was felt that the crossing of some students would be improved if a sidewalk was installed,” Schlaf said.
Cutting down the trees was part of a joint effort between the City of Galesburg and the school to construct a sidewalk in which the school provides the labor and the city provides the materials. The trees were, technically speaking, property of the city.
“These are on City of Galesburg right-of-way,” Maust said, adding that the city could have legally cut them down without even informing the school if they had chosen to.
Schlaf reiterated that this is being done in the best interest of students.
“It was part of the overall safety process,” he said.
Smith was aware of the sidewalk construction as being the reason for the tree removal, but she sounded a skeptical note, noting that it was not the lack of a sidewalk that caused the death of Tundun Lawani ’14 in a car accident fall term, but rather an alleged drunk driver.
“It doesn’t seem connected to me,” she said.
Maust further added that three of the four trees were infested with carpenter ants and were in serious danger of falling over and harming students. Four sugar maples have fallen over on campus in the last decade, including two onto cars and one onto Conger-Neal. One of the ant-infested trees removed from outside of SMC was a sugar maple.
Maust has had an unofficial policy in place to plant two trees for every one cut down.
Smith and Pena were consoled by the promise to replace every tree cut down with two more planted, but they were worried about the lack of specifics. Smith noted that “they could be off campus and we’d never know the difference.”
Associate Professor of Environmental Studies Peter Schwartzman was strongly opposed to the way in which the process was carried out, citing it as an example of a larger problem at the school in which those who love trees are afraid of expressing it for fear of such derisive labels as “tree hugger.”
“Trees serve a very important function in our ecosystem,” he said, noting the numerous birds and animals that formerly called the felled trees home. “The bottom line is [that] trees are valuable and we don’t necessarily respect them the way we should.”
His central objection to the cutting down of the SMC trees is that it was done “without the inclusion of the community.” As an alternative, he said that there could have been signs posted on the trees in question beforehand to make the proposed change more visible to students, faculty and staff and allow them to voice potential concerns.
Schwartzman would also like to see the unofficial tree replacement policy made official and publicized.
“We have a lot of beautiful trees on campus. I’m not sure that we promote that enough,” he said.
A number of the ash trees near the Athletic Center are vulnerable to Emerald Ash Borer and students will likely return to campus in the fall to find them gone.
These decisions are never taken lightly, according to Maust. “We don’t just take trees down to be taking them down.”