I. “It sucks, but it’s progress. You can’t save everything.”
Ron Frisbie, a large-boned man whose official title is Project Manager of the Capital Construction Department at Millersville University, sat back in his office chair, his hands making a gentle cathedral in the air. He turned back to the two computer monitors on his desk, his hand curled over the mouse as he clicked through topographic maps and color-coded diagrams of the planned student housing project slated for completion by the Fall of 2017.
Over Spring Break, a few workers and many tons of steel machinery demolished several acres of mature, ecologically interesting forest behind MU’s Facilities Management buildings. The sight was terrifying: an army of mechanical giants struck down 100-foot-tall oaks, walnuts, and maples. Some sawed through trunks with their giant spinning blades while others, equipped with massive claws, hauled the fresh-cut wood up the slope to be received by the vast pit of the mulching machine. Tiny birds flew noiselessly across the vacant sky that had hours before been a full canopy. The sounds of the forest that day were the loud, rapid crashes of felled trees—the literal splitting apart of the woods.
The Bush Nature Trail (a strip of woodland that runs parallel to the Conestoga River, accessible by Creek Drive) and the wild areas to either side of it were something rare and wonderful in Lancaster County, which has been largely deforested due to development and agriculture. According to MU Biology professor Dr. Aaron Haines, who frequently took his Mammology and Ornithology classes through the area that is now a lifeless mud pit, “We don’t have many woodlands left in Lancaster, especially with unique fauna. Now [the forest] has been fragmented. It’s not continuous anymore, so species might not use it as a travel corridor.” When Dr. Haines was offered his teaching position just a year ago, faculty presented the Bush as one of the Millersville’s major selling points. It is still listed with pride on the department’s website under “Facilities” and features prominently in the student handbook.
Dr. Haines had other good reasons to join MU’s Biology Department: out of the thirteen state universities, Millersville University’s science department has been given the highest national honors. While the renowned education program suffers from decreasing enrollment rates, biology has doubled in size over the past five years. The department is rooted in a strong tradition, of which the Bush forest was an integral part. In the 1960s and ‘70s, the Biology Department’s Dr. Catherine Keever published an ecological study on the patch of land laid waste a few weeks ago. She analyzed the transition of the land from abandoned farm to forest. Her study was well received internationally and is still cited in science textbooks.
According to Dr. Daniel Yocom, the Bush and especially the Keever plots were “an extension of [Biology’s] classrooms” and an essential part of field Biology study at Millersville. Among thousands of species, the Bush was host to bald eagles and indigo buntings, flying squirrels, ring-necked pheasants and wild turkeys, red foxes, big brown bats, long-tailed weasels, tree frogs, queen snakes, Trees of Heaven, Bigtooth Aspens, Paw-Paw trees and sassafras, Christmas ferns and multiflora roses, Stars of Bethlehem and Lady’s Thumbs. The Biology faculty had no idea that a huge chunk of this was slated for destruction. According to Dr. Haines, “Some species might not have made it through this event.” According to Dr. Yocom, “This is going to impact lots of students.”
II. School Ecology
How were the Keever plots erased from MU’s landscape without the Biology faculty’s awareness and consensus? To be fair, the Friday before spring break, all faculty members were sent a mass email informing them of the action. The email had an attachment that showed a map of the area to be cleared for a parking lot and retention pond, but it didn’t show the full range of destruction. One can observe the same selective tendencies in the photos chosen for announcements on the school website and Facebook page: they don’t show the destruction of the woods. Mr. Frisbie indicated to me that the hillside was clear-cut so extensively because the housing project (which will be built to accommodate 2,000 students) necessitates the installation of a stronger sewer line under what was the forest.
“They did nothing to tell us what they were considering in a timely way,” stated Dr. Yocom; and because the action was a surprise to the Biology Department, faculty could not “give input at a meaningful point in time.” In the late 1980s, there was much talk by the moneyed interests of Millersville Borough of a “bypass:” a highway that would cut through the Bush to provide an alternative entrance to the University and a more direct route to the now-departed Funk’s Farm Market. MU’s Biology Department and the Borough Council, along with concerned citizens who canvassed neighborhoods with petitions, battled the bypass plan and won. Dr. Yocom remembers defending the Bush, and laments that he wasn’t given the chance to do it again. “I would have fought it,” he said.
Judy Saylor, who was president of the Millersville Borough Council when the bypass proposal was pushed, is saddened by what happened over spring break. She, along with many other people who expressed their opinions, believes that it was a bit of a stealth operation. “They learned a valuable lesson,” she said. “Don’t tell anyone. Do it, and then ask forgiveness.”
What did Ron Frisbie of Capital Construction have to say about all this? And how much could he reveal? He said that many in the Capital Construction Department will not talk to people about the project because the Public Relations contingent at Millersville watches them closely: if they make the school look bad, their professional lives could be laid under the rotating saw, so to speak.
“I could lose my job,” said Mr. Frisbie. He then gave excuses faster than a wood-chipper expelling mulch, without providing any documentation to shore up his claims. Even after persistent questioning, Mr. Frisbie claimed absolute ignorance of the area’s significance to the Biology department on behalf of himself and everyone involved in the construction project. That includes hundreds of University employees.
III. What will come of this?
“How serious are they about sustainability?” asked Dr. Yocom, who sits on the Sustainability Committee at MU and operates an organic farm just outside of town. He answered himself: “What they did in terms of destroying what was to us a vital outside ecological study area shows that they are fundamentally not at all concerned about sustainability.”
The University was deemed one of the top “green” universities by the Princeton Review’s Guide to 311 Green Colleges in October 2011. To put it mildly, this honor seems incongruous with the forms of progress and sustainability the institution is really concerned about: namely economic—not ecological. “I hope they’re using permeable asphalt,” said Dr. Barry David, Department Chair of Industry and Technology. When Mr. Frisbie was questioned about sustainability measures being taken with regard to the housing project, specifically permeable macadam, he said: “It’s called money… and it’s called reality.” In other words, the administration and the builders didn’t prioritize sustainable building practices, so there is no room in the budget for things like permeable macadam.
Biology students need a new plot of wild nature to study, an outdoor classroom. Even if they get one someday, no amount of sympathetic eye contact, finger-wagging, apologetic e-mails, or hand-wringing over “miscommunication” and “people not doing their due diligence” will undo the damage.
Enrollment at Millersville is down. There are reasons for this—one is the rising cost of tuition. Every year, college becomes a bigger financial sacrifice for families who support their college students: some must now take out second mortgages on their homes to insure their children a safe economic future. As wages stagnate and the cost of living climbs, it’s increasingly difficult to maintain a decent standard of living without college credentials. And universities clamor for higher enrollment rates each year because the system only knows two options: growth and failure.
According to Mr. Frisbie, administrators believe that when prospective students come to visit Millersville, the top three things they look for are, in order of importance, “Housing, quality of the food, and academics.” Mr. Frisbie calls this the “resort” mentality. “I work for the students, not the faculty,” he later added.
“We are very excited about the new housing project and believe it will give us an advantage over our competition,” said Mr. Brian Hazlett, who was hired one month ago as the Head of Admissions. “The families visiting our campus are very excited about the recent renovations and construction.”
Bill Eshleman of East Cottage Avenue, a lifelong Millersville resident who has spent fifty years close to the Conestoga and still takes his children fishing near the Bush, disagrees: “It ain’t gonna stop,” he said. “I don’t like what they’re doing. They’re ruining everything around here.”
The project has left many students disillusioned about Millersville: “I’m pretty upset about the whole thing,” said Suz Yocom, who will graduate this Spring with a double major in Biology and Geography. “Millersville is going to have to be held responsible. And the ‘Going Green’ campaign is a joke. All they are doing is trying to cut corners and costs without any real dedication to environmental sustainability.”