My last column of the semester is out today, and it’s about why environmental protection is important for protecting communities, and the prospects for saving part of a forest known as The Wooded Hillock, which the university wants to bulldoze so it can relocate facilities onto it. This is my second column on the issue, I had one out back in February. If you want to learn more about the issues surrounding the Wooded Hillock, please see here, and scroll down, or go to www.savethehillock.com.
Wooded Hillock: Our tipping point
A couple of months ago, I heard a speech from Adam Ortiz, the mayor of a town a few miles south of here called Edmonston. As Ortiz jokingly put it, Edmonston is a diverse town in every way, except there are no rich people.
Ortiz talked about how Edmonston had been hit with flooding for years, including a 2006 flood in which homes were left partially submerged and people lost everything. Ortiz said this flooding occurred not because Edmonston is located near the Anacostia River but because of its parking lots, shopping centers, highways and roofs. Edmonston flooded because of irresponsible development decisions made upstream that destroyed the natural environment and caused storm water runoff to be redirected rather than absorbed. It settled in Edmonston.
Typically, when there are disputes over developments between environmental groups and developers, the ecosystem advocates are trying to protect is seen as having aesthetic value. The argument is framed as, “We should protect it because we want to be able to enjoy it and know it’s there.” What is severely missing from the conversation, and what Ortiz’s experience exemplifies is that environmental protection is actually about protecting communities. Even if we can’t see it, someone always pays for the destruction, often disproportionately those who lack a political voice.
Fortunately, Ortiz and his community were able to get Prince George’s County to build them pumping stations to mitigate the impact of flooding. When environmentalists talk about tipping points, they refer to a problem getting so bad there’s no way to solve it. Another kind of tipping point is when an issue gets so bad it begins to impact people, and the resulting awareness builds until the politics of the issue suddenly shift in favor of one side to the other.
The dispute about the Wooded Hillock, a forest the university proposed bulldozing so it could relocate facilities there to make way for the East Campus development, is a sign a tipping point is nearing on how we make development decisions. In just the past year since the motion to destroy the hillock was made public, students, faculty, media and local College Park politicians have spoken out against this decision and pushed for an alternative. What once would have been socially acceptable is now socially horrifying.
Now, despite the developer backing out of East Campus, the university says it plans to relocate its facilities to as early as January. I don’t think they can afford to do it. If the university wants East Campus, they need the City Council to approve $5 million in relocation money from the state for the facilities, the Prince George’s County Council to approve the development and our state legislators to fight for more state assistance for the project. Based on conversations I’ve had with all three, that’s a trifecta from hell if the trees go.
Edmonston found its voice. Hillock advocates have echoed the lesson from that story. They’re still having trouble breaching through the thick walls of the administration building. But keep up the volume — the tipping point where that threshold is crossed is right around the corner. When next semester starts, the hillock will stand.
Matt Dernoga is a senior government and politics major. He can be reached at dernoga at umdbk dot com.