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Committee: Virginia Tech should not cut down trees for sports complex

BLACKSBURG, Va. (CNN) — A 15-person ad hoc committee at Virginia Tech this week recommended against cutting down a portion of the “stadium woods,” a densely wooded area behind the football stadium, to build a new state-of-the-art indoor sports practice facility.

The controversy came to a head when environmentalists realized early this year officials planned to chop down the wooded area containing some rare old-growth trees.

The Virginia Tech Hokies have the third-longest college bowl game streak in the country, and have sold out every game since 1998. However, they have yet to win a national championship. The athletics department hopes a state-of-the-art facility nearer to the football stadium could help change that.

Blueprint plans that have been in the works for over a decade would require chopping down at least 60 trees over the age of 150. Six of the trees have been found to be more than 300 years old.

“The forest is in fact an endangered species in the United States. An old growth forest is,” Virginia Tech Forestry Professor John Seiler explained, “It’s literally the rarest type of forest structure left in the United States.”

However, the University Athletics Department still preferred the plan to cut down about three acres of the woods to make room for the facility, forcing University President Charles W. Steger to appoint the committee to hear arguments and eventually make their recommendation on whether the facility should be built as planned or at an alternate location.

“We’ll see what the report has to say and at the end of the day we’ll do the right thing,” Steger told CNN in an interview in May.

Committee chair John Randolph told the Board of Visitors Monday it was “in the university’s best interest” to build the facility in a different location.

“The determining factor in the committee’s deliberations and recommendations was the demonstrated social importance of the Stadium Woods,” Randolph said. Signs urging “Save Stadium Woods” were placed in yards throughout Blacksburg and a group called Friends of Stadium Woods created an online petition which has now been signed by more than 10,500 people across the country.

The committee suggested that the new state-of-the-art facility instead be built in a location where tennis courts and a roller hockey rink currently stand. According to the committee, over 450 people signed another online petition; this time requesting the courts and rink be replaced before the current ones are built on. “Alternative sites for the courts and rink have been identified,” Randolph said.

Randolph acknowledges additional cost and design issues may be incurred with the preferred location — including having to build 20% of the facility underground. So several additional options were presented during Monday’s meeting — some that would still force a small portion of the old growth forest to be cut down.

Professor John Seiler hopes the “no woods impact” option is the one ultimately chosen by school administrators. “This is a very, very easy decision,” Seiler said, “To athletics, it’s just … slightly less perfect for them. It isn’t absolutely right adjacent to the practice fields, its one minute further up the hill.”

Included with their recommendations, the committee also suggested the Stadium woods be designated for permanent protection and that a program would be developed to “enhance its ecological value and benefit” to the community.

They also suggested a review of procedures for future updates to the university master plan to “safeguard against future controversies of this sort.”

It is now up to school administrators, who will review the committee recommendations, then come back to the Board of Visitors with a final plan they will ultimately vote on. There is no set timeline at this point for when that will happen.

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