Monday, November 14, 2011
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Effort to spare Virginia Tech's old trees is sprouting

Part of stadium woods, a 20-acre forest fragment that has a whole ecosystem and trees hundreds of years old, near Lane Stadium at Virginia Tech is in danger of being cleared to make room for a new indoor athletic training facility.

A large oak tree stands along the tree line overlooking tennis courts and the basketball practice facility at Virginia Tech.

Photos by Matt Gentry | The Roanoke Times

A large oak tree stands along the tree line overlooking tennis courts and the basketball practice facility at Virginia Tech.

The Virginia Tech football practice fields next to the Merryman Center in Blacksburg are mowed earlier this month. Part of the stadium woods are in the background.

The Virginia Tech football practice fields next to the Merryman Center in Blacksburg are mowed earlier this month. Part of the stadium woods are in the background.

Trees near the Virginia Tech football practice facility and Lane Stadium (background) in Blacksburg recently were inventoried. The woods are used as a living classroom.

Trees near the Virginia Tech football practice facility and Lane Stadium (background) in Blacksburg recently were inventoried. The woods are used as a living classroom.

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Proposed indoor football practice facility site

The Roanoke Times

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Before European settlers pushed into the frontier that became Blacksburg and Virginia Tech, the landscape was covered in a deep, ancient forest dominated by white oak trees.

Today, fragments are all that remain of that great wood that stretched across the limestone plains of the mid-Atlantic from present-day Knoxville, Tenn., through Virginia to Harrisburg, Pa.

And Tech emeritus professor Jeff Kirwan may have discovered an overlooked remnant of that forest sitting quietly behind the most well-known of campus landmarks, Lane Stadium.

Between the stadium and the Houston-Harrell Street neighborhood just off campus stands what is known as the "stadium woods," a 20-acre forest fragment now thought to contain nearly five dozen white oaks that may date to about 1700.

But just as Kirwan has identified one 305-year-old oak in that stand of trees, and may have identified up to 57 more of similar vintage, Tech has slated some of the forest for development.

A proposal to clear a quarter of that wood for a new indoor athletic training facility for the Hokie football, soccer and lacrosse teams is wending its way through university committees.

Kirwan, co-author of "Remarkable Trees of Virginia," a pictorial history of the oldest, largest and most significant of the commonwealth's trees, said he would be heartsick to see 5acres of the woods cleared.

Forests are "invaluable, not disposable. We have so few of them, especially in an urban area. And we've got to hold on," he said.

Most of the stadium woods would be spared, said Tom Gabbard, Tech's associate director of athletics, internal affairs.

And the new facility would be a campus asset, too, providing better facilities for summer camps, as well as providing more space for Hokie sports.

Duke University recently opened a similar indoor football facility, and the University of Virginia is expected to construct one soon, Gabbard said.

The Tech facility has been on the books since 1998, but was put on hold to complete the stadium expansion and other, more urgent projects, Gabbard said.

The athletic department has put out a request for a proposal for a design-build team to develop a plan, which then would need approval by the board of visitors, Gabbard said.

The soonest that such a facility might open would be 2014. At about 400 feet long by 250 feet wide, the facility would be slightly larger than a football field, and is expected to be between 65 and 90 feet tall to allow punting, Gabbard said.

Upon completion of the facility, Tech would renovate the Rector Field House, permanently install an indoor track there and turn it over to the track and field program for its exclusive use, Gabbard said.

All of the work is expected to cost about $25 million and ultimately would be paid for through fundraising, Gabbard said.

This summer, the preliminary plan was presented to the university's Arboretum Committee, which advises the administration on the care of Tech's urban treescape. The university has three times been named a Tree Campus USA by the Arbor Day Foundation for its woodland stewardship.

At first, the committee asked that the athletic department plant replacement trees somewhere else on campus. To comply, Gabbard said the department plans to plant 500 trees in another location to create a new woodland.

But, after Kirwan examined the rings of a white oak tree in the project area that died over the summer and dated it at 305 years old, the committee has reconsidered, according to Eric Wiseman, a forestry professor and chairman of the committee.

After consulting with Kirwan and others, Wiseman wrote in an email last week that the committee has "taken the official position that we oppose construction of a facility that encroaches on the Woodland."

The committee and other stakeholders will have a chance to comment before the board of visitors votes on the project, Gabbard said.

Use of the woods, and even light development of them, has gone on for years.

World War II veterans attending Tech lived in trailers there with their families. Today, the Corps of Cadets maintains a repelling tower and training facility there.

At least one forestry professor, John Seiler, uses the woods as a living classroom for students studying tree measurement and identification. Without the 20-acre urban woodland, Seiler was reported in a Tech news story to say that he would have to transport students to national forest land for the courses.

"Stadium Woods is a true forest right on campus," Seiler said in the story. "Although we have trees and even groves around campus, Stadium Woods has the whole ecosystem, with a forest understory populated with plants, insects and other creatures."

One such grove surrounds the Tech president's house (called The Grove) and Hillcrest Hall. There a few white oaks measuring 5 feet in diameter and estimated to be nearly 500 years old still standing. But they don't form a forest ecosystem in the same way as the stadium woods.

A recent inventory of flora and fauna inside that 20-acre woodland shows that Neotropical migrating bird species from South and Central America use it as a resting and nesting ground, Kirwan said.

A handful of outdoor-focused groups, including the Master Naturalists, the Native Plant Society and the New River Valley Bird Club, helped with the inventories and have raised $1,500 to pay for interpretive signs describing the importance of the woods to wildlife.

The signs have not yet been installed, but Kirwan said he hopes they will be placed along a trail that winds through the woods and is often used by football fans during home games.

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