Trading wildlife for students

NEWS

Cramped between Boca Raton Airport and a parking lot on the north end of campus sits a patch of land with overgrown grass and dense vegetation — the university’s natural preserve and home of the dwindling burrowing owl, the inspiration for the school’s mascot.

Because of construction of the FAU football stadium, the preserve has shrunk considerably. According to biology faculty members and students, if development on the preserve continues, as university documents project, the owls and many of the other 300 species that inhabit the acreage will lose their habitat.

And if construction moves forward, the university will violate its policies and break promises made to the FAU community, biology faculty members also said.

“When a habitat gets too small, it no longer can support the diversity and abundance of species that it had before,” biology professor Dianne Owen said.

 

Broken promises

 

Owen is a member of a conservation committee that meets several times a year with university officials and governmental authorities to review construction plans and assess the impact those decisions could have on the environment.

The committee is composed of faculty members, students, government environmental agency representatives and FAU staff members. The university’s architect and the vice president for facilities also are members.

More than a year ago, the members were asked to approve the latest development plans. A dotted line that marked a rectangular portion on the southwest side of the preserve labeled “Potential Innovation Village Phase II” struck their attention.

According to committee members Owen, biology professor Evelyn Frazier, and biology student Joshua Scholl, both the architect and the vice president for facilities guaranteed that those lines were going to be erased from the map.

“They reassured us over and over again that there wasn’t much chance that it would actually happen — that they didn’t expect it to happen,” Owen said. “But they also didn’t say it’s definitely not going to happen.”

The conservation committee refused to endorse the map because of concerns that Innovation Village Phase II would be built. However, the committee has no power and only makes suggestions.

Now, a year later, the dotted line for Innovation Village Phase II is still there. Moreover, the Innovation Village website shows a detailed illustration displaying Phase II, which will comprise another apartment complex and a parking garage. And Figure 7.1 of the Boca campus master plan also displays the same drawing, referring to it as a future housing location.

FAU Architect Tom Donaudy doesn’t deny that construction on the preserve may occur.

“All is approved through our master plan process. It’s just a matter of the appropriate financing, and figuring out when is the appropriate time to construct,” Donaudy said. “Especially in housing, you don’t want to have something that’s not going to fill.”

Donaudy said the first Innovation Village apartment building is filling quickly. As of May, the university has secured contracts for about 800 of the 1,200 beds the complex will have when it opens in the fall.

But that doesn’t fully guarantee construction of another dormitory will happen on the preserve. Donaudy said there are other factors they have to evaluate to see if further development will take place on the natural habitat.

“The question that we are going to ask ourselves as we are moving forward in the next phase of housing is, ‘Do we want it to be for the underclassmen or for the upperclassmen?’” Donaudy said.

If the university decides there’s a bigger need for freshman and junior housing, he said, chances are administrators will look for a site on the south side of campus. But if officials decide to increase housing for juniors and seniors, that patch of land marked on the preserve may be developed.

Meanwhile, environmental faculty and students say they are only feeling one thing: helplessness.

“We don’t have any power to veto anything,” Frazier said.

Because the master plan has been approved by the city of Boca Raton and the FAU Board of Trustees, the university is entitled to do what it wants with its land, Donaudy said.

“What they call the preserve is something they designated — nobody else designated it,” said Ricardo Zambrano, a biological scientist from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, whose main job is to help the university get the permits it needs for construction. “The school designated that area a preserve and they define the boundaries.”

But Donaudy’s argument appears to contradict the policies outlined in that same master plan.

Policy 1D-1 in the conservation section of the Boca campus master plan states, “The University’s Conservation Committee has designated various areas of environmentally sensitive land and wildlife habitat for protection. These areas are indicated on Figure 13.2, Valuable Conservation and Open Spaces … . These areas shall remain protected from development and all other activities that may diminish their natural values and functions.”

That rectangular patch of land set for Phase II is one of the areas in the preserve labeled as a “valuable conservation space,” but it’s also labeled as a “future housing location” in Figure 7.1 of the master plan, which was approved in 2009.

On Feb. 25, 2010, members of the committee wrote a letter presenting this apparent contradiction to FAU Architect Tom Donaudy and to Azita Dashtaki, vice president for facilities, both of whom said that Phase II will not occur.

During the committee meeting on April 19, 2011, the issue about the preserve’s boundaries and its future construction arose again.

“The university understands that if we are going to move forward with that, we have to mitigate for land, for conservation needs,” Dashtaki said. “Keep in mind that if the mission of the university is to be supportive and we need additional housing, we have to evaluate and see what’s the best location.”

Dashtaki added that the university owns land north of Spanish River Boulevard that could be used for a gopher tortoise habitat.

In 2005, the preserve comprised 176.6 acres. In 2010, after part of it was cleared for the football stadium, 90.9 acres remained — roughly the size of 69 football fields. If Phase II proceeds, only about 70 acres would be left.

 

Tortoise haven

 

Biology student Joshua Scholl is one of the students who takes advantage of the biodiversity found in the preserve. He has spent six months conducting research on it.

He studied the gopher tortoise, which is listed by the state as a threatened species, meaning that its population has decreased drastically in the last few years. These animals also are an indicator of the environmental health of an area.

They are called “keystone species” because gophers build dozens of burrows that may be used by around 300 animals and 60 insects, including the indigo snakes, frogs, mice and burrowing owls. The burrowing owl is listed as a species of special concern in Florida.

Scholl found that the population of tortoises is already overcrowded due, in part, to the lack of land after almost one third of the preserve was used to build the stadium and its amenities. The animals that were located where the football stadium and Innovation Village I are being constructed were relocated to the preserve.

He believes that if another chunk of the preserve were to be taken out, the population of tortoises would not be able to sustain itself. If this happens, other species that rely on the burrows they make would also suffer the consequences.

“Eventually the tortoises will die out,” Scholl said.

Biologist Mark Brandenburg disagrees with Scholl’s predictions.

Brandenburg works as an environmental consultant for FAU. His job includes the relocation of burrowing owls and gopher tortoises.

“A population of tortoises will be able to sustain itself,” Brandenburg said via email.

He argues that the FAU preserve currently contains 72 acres of habitat appropriate for gopher tortoises. At a minimum density of two tortoises per acre, the FAU preserve can accommodate 144 tortoises. Based on his most recent assessment, the preserve tortoise population is 94.

Brandenburg also said that burrowing owls require open grassland areas. The area discussed as a potential site for Innovation Village Phase II does not include such open areas. Between 25 and 30 burrowing owls live on campus, which includes portions of land outside of the preserve on the southeastern part of campus, he said.

But Scholl said that during his research last year, he saw at least one pair of owls living on the land designated for Phase II.

The university has also cleared a small patch of land on the north tip of the preserve to make it suitable for burrowing owls. Dianne Owen believes that even if the area is mowed, owls might not migrate there because the soil is too sandy and water will destroy their burrows.

“When there’s a lot of [water] flowing their burrows might not even be inhabitable, it really remains to be seen how good of a habitat the preserve is going to be for the gopher tortoise and the owls as they are planning to manage it now,” Owen said.

A 2005 Sun Sentinel article states that between 1971 and 2003, the numbers fell from 48 to 26 owls, according to research by then-FAU graduate student Annabelle McKie.

Biology professor Evelyn Frazier said that at one point, the owl population may have reached 86 birds.

Under the terms of a federal migratory bird treaty, it is illegal to harm a burrowing owl, its nest or its eggs, as it is a species of “special concern.” But its presence isn’t a legal basis to stop a construction project. If the owls’ burrows are blocked, the birds will fly away and relocate.

The gopher tortoises, however, need to be relocated by specialists if their habitat is to be developed. This may be the only thing legally saving the remaining preserve from construction, since some of the tortoises on the area destined for Phase II have already been relocated to that sector and they can’t be relocated twice, according to Chance Cowan from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

“In any case, no matter how many tortoises we find anywhere … there will be no more relocations into the preserve,” Cowan said.

Creating awareness

For their part, the biology faculty members say they will do anything they can to create awareness about the preserve.

“We are passing petitions all over the place to get the university to make that into a permanent conservation area,” Frazier said.

Professors Frazier and Owen also teach a field ecology course in the preserve. They recently received grants and were able to install weather stations on the land to gather data that includes soil moisture and rainfall.

Scholl, along with others, has made a trail in the preserve to get students to walk through it and learn about its fauna and flora.

“The goal of the trail is to get the entire FAU community involved, not just to do research but to try to create more awareness,” said Scholl, who plans to add benches to the trail for next fall.

Earlier last semester, Scholl met with FAU President Mary Jane Saunders for five minutes to discuss the preserve.

“She said, ‘I don’t really know what’s going on, but I can assure you that if there were a preserve, they’ll have to buy land elsewhere [to accommodate the animals].’ But she didn’t want to take any sides, either for or against it,” Scholl said.

“I mean if our president doesn’t even know all the things that are out there, it is hard to expect the community to try to fight for the land because they probably don’t know.”

Asked about the future of the natural preserve, President Saunders referred the question to the university architect.

“The BOT [Board of Trustees] approved Master Plan does identify the potential site for the second phase of Innovation Village apartments as extending within the current conservation boundary.   This information has been shared with the Conservation Committee and the updated Habitat Management Plan identifies the site as the proposed location for Innovation Village expansion,” Donaudy wrote in an email.

“When the university determines the need to move forward with this phase of Innovation Village, we shall evaluate mitigating strategies for an equal or greater piece of property to offset this impact and in addition as part of our planning process we continue to examine all of our property for highest and best use in accommodating the Universities core mission,” he wrote.

Professor Dianne Owen believes Saunders is focusing too much on making FAU a more traditional university and forgetting about her background in the natural sciences.

“I haven’t seen any sign at all from the new president that she has the least interest in conservation, at all,” Owen said. “She’s pushing like crazy to expand the campus.”

“I think that having students live on campus is a good thing. Is Innovation Village the only way to do it? Has that been seriously looked at? … I don’t think there’s been a real effort on the part of the FAU administration to say, ‘Well, we need to look at conservation,’” Owen said.

“We can’t just look at how do we deal with the human side of it, we have to look at how do we get the conservation and the human side of it. 

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