For Julianne Gibson, the McCarty Woods Conservation Area is as much a part of the University of Florida campus as Ben Hill Griffin Stadium or J. Wayne Reitz Union.
Gibson, 22, a senior wildlife ecology and conservation major from Dallas, said her first experience on the campus in Gainesville was walking with her boyfriend and dog through the nearly 3-acre wooded area at the corner of Newell Drive and Museum Road.
Now she is among a group of students protesting the university’s plans to cut the McCarty conservation area – a favorite teaching site for many faculty – to just one acre.
“I think that this is a case where they’re not recognizing that this is more of a need to society at UF – to have a learning area than [another] type of building,” Gibson said.
McCarty Woods has been conserved since 2000 and serves as a research laboratory and natural teaching space for students and faculty in multiple classes.
UF’s 2020-2030 campus master plan has identified the site for construction of future academic buildings and states that the remaining area may afterward be more easily maintained. The lost land would be offset by expanding the Lake Alice conservation area, leaving the campus with a total of 7.3 acres of more conservation land, the master plan also states.
Developing on McCarty would allow for a more walkable area on the eastern third of campus, and keep UF from having to put academic buildings on the west side of Lake Alice, Linda Dixon, the university’s planning director, said in an interview with WCJB-TV.
UF needs more space for housing, performance arts, research and exhibits if it’s to reach the status of a top five public university, Dixon said in the same interview.
The UF board of trustees approved the master plan in December. However, the plan still needs the approval of the officials responsible for a state-mandated campus development agreement between the university, Gainesville and Alachua County. UF is hoping to get the development agreement approved by the trustee board’s next meeting in March.
Critics who want to save McCarty Woods are planning a protest 1:30 and 3 p.m. Friday, outside of Florida Ballpark before UF’s baseball game against the University of Miami.
“We’re really wanting to get in touch with students, but also hopefully parents that might be alumni,” said Genevieve Printiss, 20, a junior forest resource conservation major from Carrabelle on the Florida Panhandle, and one of the protest organizers. “I just really hope that people take away that even if they don’t necessarily have a stake in it, that maybe they should.”
Savanna Cantrell, 21, a junior wildlife ecology and conservation major from Titusville, Brevard County, said there will be extra masks available for protesters, and that they must abide social distancing. Cantrell said McCarty Woods is important not only for classes, but also for people to come for stress release and to enjoy the environment.
“If school is overwhelming, just taking a five-minute walk is really decompressing,” she said. “It allows you just to, like, breathe and take a step back from the world, and take a step back from everything. I think it’s really beneficial.”
A GroupMe gathering of students created in support of McCarty Woods grew from about 20 people to nearly 300 in just 24 hours, said Sierra Scauzillo, 22, a senior wildlife ecology and conservation major from Merritt Island near Cape Canaveral.
Scauzillo established the campaign so that everyone’s voices could be heard, not just those whose were the loudest, she said. Since then, the effort has become more organized, consisting of three branches: political, informational and social, she said.
The protesters said expanding the conservation area around Lake Alice is not enough.
“I understand on paper, it’s great, but wildlife and environmental wise, it’s not,” Cantrell said. “Bringing down McCarty from three acres to one acre seriously will degrade the land and the quality of the habitat that’s left over.”
Christopher Saley, 35, a senior forest resources and conservation major from Orlando, said he worries about what he called the little creatures with no voice to speak up.
“The birds, they can sing all they want, and you can take beautiful footage of it, but at the end of the day it takes us to stand up for those areas,” Saley said.
Vasilios Kosmakos, 21, a junior sustainability and international studies double major from St. Petersburg, also said McCarty Woods is more than just a classroom.
“It makes my day every single day to go through it,” Kosmakos said. “It helps me settle down; it helps me de-stress and reconnect with nature.”
“I’ve got children, I’ve got five classes, I share one vehicle with my wife, things like that are hard to just get through the day,” he said. “And when you have places like this, where you can just go and kind of relax, unwind, get away from it all, it’s necessary.”
Saley also said the protest is about more than just McCarty Woods.
“This is about conservation areas everywhere,” he said. “If we’re not able to conserve the areas that are set aside to be managed properly, then what really are we doing?”
Scauzillo said the fight would not be lost if UF planners get their next approvals by March. The battle isn’t over until bulldozers hit the ground, she said.
“This doesn’t stop,” Scauzillo said. “I think having that deadline, if anything, just gets people more fired up and more excited.”
Kosmakos said the concerns are not coming from “just a bunch of angry college students complaining out of nowhere.” He added: “We have logical, coherent arguments against what they’re doing. Let’s come to the table – and let’s figure something out that benefits everyone.”