Professors want to protect environment on campus

Stephen Finke and other Northern Kentucky University faculty members say they want a voice that represents ecological concerns in relation to university lands. They say they would like a group of faculty who are knowledgeable in environmental issues and ecology to be able to consult campus planning.

“We are asking to be included in the decision making process,” Finke said. “We want a committee to have representation at the level where the decisions of what to do are made, so we would know of what’s coming down before it happens.”

This may have helped the biology department, which, until a few weeks ago, used the undergrowth of a campus green space behind the Applied Science and Technology Building to educate students, according to Deborah Pearce, professor of biological sciences. That was before the underbrush was cut, she said.

Pearce said each semester the biology department takes all biology 120 students on a nature hike. “They left all of the taller trees, but they cut down the undergrowth,” Pearce said. “What you’re going to get is erosion until the plant life comes back…Now, we won’t be able to show (students) the stage of succession with the lower canopy.”

Elinor Rambo, biology department lecturer, said, “Some lab instructors spent considerable time in the forest showing students the wide variety of small animals that lived there. It is now almost a wasteland.”

Dan Drake, director of the physical plant, said physical plant employees cleared the area of underbrush, in particular Honeysuckle, which is an invasive non-native plant.

He said, “Our hope is that by eradicating this plant the existing wooded area will prosper. Also, as a conservation measure, we left any natural fallen timber on the ground floor to allow natural decay.”

Finke said the brush was cleared out of a misunderstanding and wants more faculty involvement with the way the physical campus is being used.

To help the university make environmental decisions, there have been environmental advising committees in the past, according to Dr. Miriam Kannan, regents professor, who said she has been involved with them since she arrived at NKU 21 years ago.

“Whenever they started a new building or did things with the pond, campus planning called the committee and they were consulted on things such as how many trees they were cutting,” she said.

The committee, made up of several faculty members interested in environmental issues, was consulted on what to do about algae blooms in Lake Inferior and whether or not to treat it with large amounts of copper sulfate, Kannan said. They were also consulted about where to put paths and buildings.

“But they started calling us less and less, and things just started happening on campus without the environmental impact committee,” Kannan said.

In 1997, when University President Dr. James C. Votruba came to NKU, he started a campus environment and facilities committee of faculty and staff. Until last year they were operational, Kannan said.

“I think he later thought their job basically right now is done,” she said.

According to Mary Paula Schuh, director of campus planning, there is a much higher focus now on the appearance of the campus than there was 10 years ago. But, she said, it has happened because it needed to happen, rather than because an environmental advising committee had a role in it.

Finke said he would like a new committee to re-establish the old committee.

“One of the reasons why that committee fizzled out was because they felt like they had no power,” he said.

A year ago, Finke and other faculty formed a group generally referred to as the land committee. They wanted to identify the ecosystem of highest quality on campus and recommend it be preserved. When established, the committee had three initial goals: to identify university property to be put into a binding conservation easement, to establish guidelines for its use and to create a means of implementation, Finke said.

First, the committee learned what kinds of ecosystems were on campus and the condition they were in. The Environmental Resource Management Center at NKU with a grant from the Center for Integrative Natural Science and Mathematics at NKU compiled a land assessment survey from the summer 2001 to February 2002. From it came three maps that show the various types of ecosystems found in our area and the quality in which they were found.

The survey found most of the land on campus to be of low quality, based on the age of the system and the percentage of invasive species, according to Barry Dalton, director and senior ecologist at NKU’s Environmental Resource Management Center.

One reason, Dalton said, is because Amur honeysuckle, an invasive species, is aggressively invading area forests and making up 95 percent of what is currently greening up Cincinnati area. Brought to America around a century ago, it is from the Amur River Valley close to China in eastern Asia. Dalton said there is something not present in the environment here which keeps it in check, whether it is an insect, fungus or virus.

“Above ground, it competes by shading out plants, and below ground, its root systems tie up water and nutrients and space,” Dalton said. “So, when Amur honeysuckle comes in and dominates, it pretty much squeezes out all of our native plants and all of our native biodiversity.”

Schuh said there is another reason the land is of low quality on campus.

“This was all a big farm, or a couple of different farms,” she said. “Pretty much all of it was destroyed at one point or other. So, none of it’s very old with just some real small exceptions.”

The survey also found there was high quality land found on property adjacent to campus.

Dalton said, “If you look at all the campuses that are in the greater Cincinnati area, NKU is probably pretty unique in having some of these high quality green spaces still close to their campus where their students could walk to and could provide a real opportunity for teaching and outdoor education one day.”

Based on the results of the land assessment survey, the land committee changed its agenda and made three new recommendations, which were passed by the faculty Senate on March 18, 2002.

First, they recommended the creation of an Environmental Advisory Committee consisting of individuals whose disciplines and areas of interest make them informed representatives, qualified to speak for environmental interests, who would have representation at the level where decisions concerning university lands are discussed and made.

Mike Baker, vice president for academic affairs, said he will be working with the provost and the president to establish an ad hoc standing committee with faculty representation. They are still reviewing how the committee will be comprised.

The second recommendation was to establish a committee, with representation from honors program, to consider the creation of an Outdoor Educational Center in the forest behind the Honors House. Baker said the administration would probably set up a task force to look at the area.

He said, “That would be just a task force established with a specific task, for a limited time period, just to review that proposal, work with the Honors House, make sure it works with the master plan to make sure that is something that we could accommodate. That particular committee would have a limited duration.”

The third recommendation was the University acquire “very high quality” property with a ravine for the purpose of conservation and education. Baker said they would need to look at the proposal more closely to see how it works with the master plan.

Finke hopes the recommendations will plant roots, branch out and grow.

“If your perception is capable of transcending individual ego, you can sort of see the environment as an extension of yourself.” he said. “Perhaps it’s important to respect the environment
if you want to respect yourself or your species. The linkage between the organism and the environment in which it exists is very close. We can look at a lot of environmental degradation as being symptomatic of our own.”