Defending the forest – tree-sitters battle development at UC Santa Cruz

As I write this, activists are sitting in trees at the University of California, Santa Cruz. UCSC has tried to quell the growing protest by arresting people who would support the tree-sit and filing a lawsuit, a la UC Berkeley. They have even gone so far as to pepper-spray a group of students and community members gathered at the base. But the people in the trees remain. The trees and adjoining parking lot are slated to become the site of UCSC’s new Biomedical Sciences Facility — only the first project in the 2005 Long Range Development Plan (LRDP), which would replace 120 acres of forested land with students housing, recreational facilities, roads and research facilities.

The University of California, Santa Cruz, is not your typical UC campus. Unlike UC Berkeley or UCLA, which are outgrowths of suburban sprawl surrounded by university-themed shopping centers, UCSC occupies a space made of meadows, chaparral, mixed evergreen and redwood forests on a mountain above the city of Santa Cruz. Only about a third of the campus land is built upon. The north part of campus is undeveloped, with an impressive array of forest ecosystems crisscrossed by hiking trails and dirt roads. Over 500 distinct plant species and 500 species of mushrooms have been identified within campus boundaries. Furthermore, UCSC is surrounded by protected State and City park lands: Wilder/Grey Whale Ranch State Park, Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park and the Pogonip city preserve. Upper Campus is an important wildlife corridor between these parks, and contains the headwaters of three important watersheds that each pass through downstream wildlife preserves before draining into the Monterey Bay.

The LRDP maps out a rapid expansion of campus facilities over the next 13 years to accommodate up to 4,500 new full-time students. It plans new buildings and roads on 120 acres of currently forested land and promises to degrade the quality of life in Santa Cruz at large, a community which is already completely “built out” and experiencing traffic congestion, water shortages and unaffordable housing costs.

The ecological and academic consequences of the trajectory set by the LRDP will be far-reaching. One must ask, what is pushing these plans forward, in the midst of a general lack of funding for existing programs? UCSC is under pressure to give up its counter-cultural, liberal arts reputation and become an impersonal research institution with tall, glassy laboratories that can attract private funding and prestigious faculty. The ecosystems that have always been so vital to both the campus and surrounding community are now appreciated only for the “green aesthetic” that they lend to UCSC’s public image.

In the early hours of November 7th, people began hoisting climb lines and wooden platforms into three clusters of redwood trees. By 11 am that morning, one person had been arrested and three people were in redwood trees surrounded by UC police. The tree-sitters had been without food and water all night and one sitter, whose platform had been confiscated before it could be raised, sat in a redwood tree in only his climbing harness. Elsewhere on campus, a planned rally in opposition to the LRDP was underway. Hundreds of students listened to speakers elucidating the numerous problems with UCSC’s expansion plans. In a burst of energy, the rally morphed into a march, led by Santa Cruz’s own Trash Orchestra, to deliver supplies to the tree-sitters.

Hundreds of supporters arrived at the tree-sit on Science Hill armed with food and water. The first group of people to break police lines with bags of food were tackled to the ground by police and arrested, additional waves were met with pepper-spray and batons, but the crowd was not deterred. In a burst of success, they pushed the police line back and surrounded one of the tree clusters. Cheers went out as food and water began going up. The police seemed powerless in the face of the determined mass of people and eventually left, much to the surprise of the crowd.

Opposition to the expansion has been fomenting from all quarters of Santa Cruz society since the University began the planning process three years ago. The comment section of the LRDP’s Environmental Impact Report is flooded with criticisms and concerns, citing the inaccuracy of impact analysis and the inadequacy of proposed mitigations. The city, county and community organizations have filed dozens of lawsuits, after having their concerns ignored by the UC, which holds the authority of a state agency yet behaves in many ways as a private corporation. In August of this year, a judge ruled that the university’s EIR did not adequately account for housing, traffic and water impacts. This lawsuit is currently stalled in attempts at out of court negotiations. The final outcome of these court cases is anyone’s guess, and the University is showing no intention of altering its plans. Before giving their final approval to the LRDP, in spite of the criticisms and exhortations of city officials and local residents, the only comment from the Regents — the board that governs the entire University of California system — was to ask – why only 4,500 new students?

On campus, little had been said about the LRDP since its final approval in 2006. But since November 7th, forums and discussions have being held, educating students and generating ideas that were never touched upon during the original planning process. Professors discuss the issues in their classes, anti-LRDP graffiti abounds and the administration has devoted considerable resources to trying to repair their image after the police violence of November 7th.

At UC Berkeley, tree-sitters are celebrating a year spent in the trees, and in light of UCSC’s reluctance to respond to criticism the UCSC tree-sitters are prepared for a long-term campaign that may take on many different forms before the expansion plans are called off. But the forest of UCSC is worth the effort and energy that will be required. The tree-sitters recognize their struggle in the larger context of defending the little remaining wild areas that exist and opposing the profit-driven agenda that the LRDP represents.

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