Sunday, January 21, 2007

AP: At Cal, building a winning team is easier than building a gym


BERKELEY, Calif. - The protesters have been perched in the oaks for seven weeks, peacefully enduring frost and rain and the occasional earthquake from 40 feet above the University of California campus.  Their supporters congregate below in tie-dyed sarongs and spiked leather jackets, chanting, dancing and hanging oversized drawings of eyes from the trunks of the decades-old trees that could be gone in a few months.  "We Can Have Old Trees And New Gyms," one banner reads.  Grass-roots protests are part of the landscape in this cradle of activist politics and environmental awareness. But these protesters at the base of Memorial Stadium are fighting an uphill battle over the fate of a small oak grove caught between sports and science.  The school intends to remove 42 trees, including 26 ecologically valuable coast live oaks, to make way for a $125 million athletic training complex that will anchor a badly-needed renovation of the Golden Bears' dilapidated stadium, which is nestled among hundreds of similar oaks and redwoods in Strawberry Canyon. "We think it's outrageous that UC Berkeley, which consistently presents itself as an environmental leader, would take an action that goes against what its professors teach every day on campus," said Doug Buckwald, a 1982 Cal grad and a member of Save the Oaks at the Stadium, one of several groups protesting the school's plan.

Such a project would be welcomed in most any other big football town with a winning team like coach Jeff Tedford's, which won a share of the Pac-10 title this season for the first time in three decades. Though Cal claims it has made extensive efforts to appease every environmental and safety concern, the school faces a slew of lawsuits and growing public condemnation.  Tedford and athletic director Sandy Barbour are learning that in Berkeley building a conference champion might be easier than building a new gym. "I really believe this campus has gone about it the right way," Barbour said. "This project fills a significant need, not only for our athletes, but for the school. Every aspect has been designed to improve the safety of our student-athletes, and it's really just a fabulous project for this campus." But a growing groundswell of protest says the university's plans are rife with flaws. Buckwald can cite a laundry list of mistakes, from city laws that prohibit the removal of such trees to the dangers of building on an earthquake fault. Four lawsuits have been filed, and several groups will seek a preliminary injunction against the project next week. Some of the nation's most prominent activists, from Woodstock emcee Wavy Gravy to veteran tree-sitter Julia Butterfly Hill, have turned up in support.

The protesters insist they don't hate football or begrudge the training needs of the 12 other Cal teams, from field hockey to lacrosse, that will train in the 142,000-square-foot training center. They simply believe Cal should put it somewhere else.  "If they had any kind of legitimate public process, we never would have seen this spectacularly bad plan put forth," Buckwald said. "They wouldn't have come up with an unreasonable plan to build their sports facility in a dangerous place right by a fault and without planning to destroy this ancient grove of trees."  The project never would have started without Tedford's success. The coach is 43-20 since taking over in 2002, winning three bowl games and restoring pride and enthusiasm to a program that had little of either in the quarter-century before he arrived. But even Tedford, who agreed this week to a contract extension through 2013, knows the Bears' recruiting potential is limited without a home that measures up to the nation's best. His coaches now work in cramped, dungeon-like offices inside Memorial Stadium, with a sub-par weight room and a leaky locker room. "We've been fairly successful recruiters, and it obviously hasn't been because of the facilities," Tedford said. "This is going to give us everything we need to recruit, to compete and to build a program the school can be proud of." Led by Barbour, Cal already has raised approximately $100 million - about 80 percent of the cost of the training center. The stadium renovation will take place in two later phases. But the oaks must be removed to make the current plans work, and that has sent protesters scrambling into the trees - and to their lawyers.  There is a city law against removing such trees, but the university is a state entity that's not required to follow such city regulations. There also are laws against building on an active fault, but Cal vice chancellor Nathan Brostrum cites geological studies saying there's no active fault under the training complex.

And the public anger isn't directed just at the training complex. Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, who played for Cal's 1959 Rose Bowl team, worries that a planned parking garage will create traffic hassles and emergency-response delays. Cal has promised to address such safety concerns.  Even a group called Save Tightwad Hill is suing, claiming the university's plan to slightly raise the east side of Memorial Stadium will block the view from the famed hillside where fans have watched for free for more than 80 years. Cal insists it has done as much as possible to minimize the environmental impact. The training complex is mostly underground, and a spacious plaza atop of the facility has an elaborate groundwater resource system designed to help the remaining trees. There are already 600 live oaks on campus, including huge stands in the Strawberry Canyon nature preserve. The school has pledged to plant three new trees for every removed tree, spending nearly $1 million - though the saplings wouldn't all be oaks. Until a court decides what's next, the protesters and the campus will be uneasy neighbors. Police say the tree-sitters are violating the law, but they don't currently intend to remove them. On Jan. 12, police removed most of the encampment below the protesters - everything from sleeping bags and chairs to laptop computers and a barbecue grill - because of public safety concerns with classes about to resume. The tree-sitters were allowed to stay, and more than 50 people turned out for a rally that afternoon.  One sign in the sea of protesters summed up the collective sentiment: "All we are saying is give trees a chance!"

"People have come forth that haven't been active in years, because they see that if you stand up for things, you can make a difference," Buckwald said. "You can almost hear the wheels turning: 'Here's a way that I can make a difference.'"



Anonymous said...

I am quite sure that before the 2005 season, many of these same treason that people are living in were cut down prior to the first game as they were becoming to dense and as a fan security issue...Funny how nobody at all complained when that happened, someone should ask these folks where were they then if they were so in love with these trees when they walk by them daily. I used to work in the stadium, I clearly witnessed this event

Erik King said...

These people are so irrational. The plan doesn't violate state law, which is the only law that applies to Cal, a STATE university. They also plan to plant 3 times as many trees that they are removing.

Granted, it will be sad to see the trees go, but there is a greater objective here that overrides the concern for a few trees.