Requiem for a tree

Many students may know little about the Baobab tree. Found in Madagascar, northern Australia and some parts of Africa, this tree can live to be over one thousand years old. Students may also be surprised to hear that, until recently, this exotic tree specimen was just a short walk away-one of the many members of the John C. Gifford Arboretum collection that was lost during this year’s tumultuous hurricane season.

Last Wednesday the Arboretum Committee, a group made up of faculty, staff and students, held a meeting to celebrate the importance of the cactus family in the world and, on a more serious note, to discuss the future of the Gifford Arboretum in light of the recent damage to campus.

The Gifford Arboretum was planted in 1947 and contained a representative set of important tropical plant families as well as a nearly complete set of the tropical trees native to South Florida.

After Hurricane Katrina hit campus at the beginning of the semester, a survey showed that 21 percent of the Gifford Arboretum’s collection was lost in the storm. No estimate for the damage caused by Hurricane Wilma was available yet, but Carol Horvitz, professor of biology and arboretum director, said that the arboretum suffered more at the hands of the chainsaw crews cleaning up after Wilma than the actual storm winds.

Though much of the arboretum was destroyed after Hurricane Wilma, some trees that had been knocked down by winds were deemed salvageable. These trees were marked with ribbons indicating that they were not to be cut down.

However, according to Horvitz, due to miscommunication with the FEMA crew, some trees that were marked for saving were accidentally cut down. After realizing this, Horvitz returned to the arboretum with the cleanup crews to personally show them which trees were meant to be salvaged.

As recently as last Monday, 10 days after Hurricane Wilma hit campus, Horvitz noticed that a rare tree, the Mexican Alvaradla, had been marked for saving but had still been cut down. This time, however, Horvitz said the campus’ grounds management crew had been responsible.

“I truly believe this behavior is indicative of an attitude that does not support the academic mission of these collections,” Horvitz said. “Trees dying is not less important than winning a football game.”

Allan Weber, the director of contract administration for the University, stated that the cutting down of arboretum trees was an accident on UNICCO’s part, as the crews had been told to just remove broken branches from the arboretum during the campus cleanup. However, due to the massive scale of the cleanup project as well as the large number of crews working around campus at one time, the message seemed to have been lost.

“When you’re dealing with 250 acres and a time limit to get the campus up and running again, accidents like these will happen,” Weber said.

At the Arboretum Committee meeting held last Tuesday, plans were discussed in order to remedy the situation so as to prevent any future mishaps with the arboretum collection. All agreed that the University needed to develop more radical post- and pre-hurricane protocol in order to preserve the arboretum’s tropical trees.

John Cozza, a graduate student heading the undergraduate outreach program for the committee, said he believes that the problem lies in the fact that there is no post-hurricane procedure for the arboretum that is separate from the procedure used to care for the rest of the campus landscape.

“People need to understand that the arboretum is not just a landscape-it is a collection of trees that must be preserved,” he said.

Marina Nazir can be contacted at