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UF Students, Staff Attempt To Save Heritage Trees

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The people behind a social media campaign that took root at the University of Florida overnight are celebrating a small victory for a big tree.

After discovering a unique tree on UF’s campus was scheduled for removal because of construction, a group of students and faculty rallied to save it.

The university’s current construction plan includes Nexus, an expansion of the Nuclear Sciences Building.

But the design planners have one very big obstacle in their way: Bert.

A large bluff oak tree, or Bert, as it is affectionately referred to, is one of 35 trees designated for removal under preliminary designs for the Nexus expansion.

However, after concerns were raised concerning the removal of trees like Bert, a UF landscape committee has asked that new design plans be submitted for consideration.

Jason Smith, an associate professor in UF’s school of Forestry and Conservation, is a former member of UF’s Lakes, Vegetation and Landscaping Committee who described himself as passionate about trees. On Thursday, Smith gathered around Bert with other students and faculty who worked to influence the committee to save the tree and the other heritage oaks.

During a committee meeting Thursday morning, members voted to ask the Nexus design team to explore all options to build around the heritage trees and bring revised plans back for consideration.

Students and faculty joined Smith in asking the committee to consider the legacy of Bert and other heritage trees on site. Reflecting on the achievement, Smith noted the size and strength of the campaign to save Bert, hastily put together over the course of two days.

“We have tree experts and people who are enthusiasts that love trees from all over the world saying, ‘This is an important tree. This is something the campus needs to protect,’” Smith said.

He noted the facts confirmed by arborist Erick Smith with Kestral Ecological Services.

Bert the bluff oak stands about 80 feet tall and is more than 36 inches in diameter. It’s estimated to be more than 100 years old, perhaps the third or fourth largest of its kind in the state.

Bardia Khajenoori, a UF student, jumped on the opportunity to spread the word about the plight of Bert and its neighbors.

Speaking at the meeting, Khajenoori stressed the importance of UF’s environmental legacy.

“We want to make sure that the progress this campus can make in the future doesn’t come at the expense of our past,” Khajenoori said.

Despite their hope to keep the trees where they are, committee members also understood the challenges presented in rerouting the design.

“I do think it will be very challenging, ultimately, for them to prevent that … and avoid the heritage trees,” said Jeanna Mastrodicasa, a current committee member. “I’m not really sure how that will be done. But hopefully, they can at least hear the concerns, give it a try, see what can happen.”

The architects and design planners will bring their findings and plans to a future committee meeting. From there, the committee will decide whether it’s possible to save the heritage trees.

If removal cannot be avoided, those trees will be replaced at a greater value than non-heritage trees per UF’s tree mitigation policy, either on-site or elsewhere. Even though the committee will make a formal recommendation to the university, the fate of Bert and his friends is still in question.

Meanwhile, Smith and students are pushing for a campus environment receptive to their ideas to keep the flora in Florida.

“Although today isn’t the end for Bert,” said Khajenoori, “he does live to see another day.”

About Leanna Scachetti

Leanna is a reporter who can be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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