HERE NB, Nov 16-22, 2006
Bulldozers advance on the woodlot
Fifty per cent will remain in its natural state
By Patrick Leonard
It spans 1,500 hectares within the Fredericton city limits, a long spread of broad leaf foliation and black spruce, threaded together with peaceable streams and dotted with ponds. But as Regent Street approaches on the forest edge, the trails of the University of New Brunswick’s woodlot are abruptly punctuated by a new development; the first big-box store.
This is the beginning. The woodlot, in UNB’s trust for 200 plus years, in which time it has been variously farmed and harvested to heat the campus buildings, will see 50 per cent of its body cleared for building in the next half-century. The environmental impact has been checked and the re-zoning signed-off. Feeding from the buzz of Fredericton’s Regent Mall, the woodlot’s retail development may cover as much 500,000 square feet. The estimated payback, according to 2005 The Telegraph-Journal report, is an additional $3 million in the university’s pocket each year.
“We can’t continue to rely on government grants and student tuition for all the needs that we have, the property was given to the university as an endowment for its support, that goes back to King George III over 200 years ago,” UNB associate vice president Mike Ryan told (here) in July last year. George III, who joined Ireland to the United Kingdom during his reign, likewise wedded the woodlot to the university in 1800. The betrothal was made for the general support of the institution, as the university’s constitution states, and for the edification of students. Putting edifices upon it could arguably accomplish either objective.
But this fact, simple as it may be, will not suit the devoted public. News items on the woodlot routinely seek out the patrons of its trails to decry the environmental damage. Truly, no man knows the woodlot as intimately as the man who courses through it year after year with a dog at his side. But it is not these men, nor women, that administrate such decisions.
Frank Flanagan, the director of development services for the city of Fredericton, is well versed in the efforts to develop the woodlot, and says that the university has prepared meticulously for “phase one” of development; retail space.
“The university undertook a study of the lot and the identification of environmentally sensitive areas; wetlands and old growth forests,” Flanagan said. “Yes, 50 per cent of the woodlot has been identified for planned development studies, but the other 50 per cent is to be kept in its natural state for perpetuity.”
But the development of one part of an ecosystem would surely impact another. A forest is after all one body, one being. Fredericton resident Earle Arnold first nosed through the woodlot in the mid sixties, and can describe the changes he’s witnessed over time.
“I know at one time I had seen as much wildlife on this woodlot, as I had seen anywhere else in New Brunswick,” Arnold told The Telegraph-Journal in 2005.
“I’m not sure how much wildlife is left.” The woodlot is, on one hand, a refuge for wildlife within city limits, and more than twice the size the city’s Odell park. Inuk Simard of the Conservation Council said, while there would certainly be an impact, but that there’s little recourse for public response.
“As more and more development creeps in, with buildings and roads going up, there will be some change in the balance,” Simard said.
But he said that the Conservation Council had not mounted any criticism of the plans; apparently, most aspects had been confirmed at the highest levels before this mobilization was possible. The woodlot is moreover private property, making the plans of its owners difficult to meaningfully contest. Flanagan said that the university had attempted to satisfy public inquires, in recognition of the institution’s role in the community and of the public’s recreational use of the park.
“But ultimately the university dictates use,” he said.
Still, as Italian socialist Antonio Gramsci wrote, history unfolds not by the will of the committed few but of the indifferent many. If the public outcry were not limited to the soft-spoken pleas of the woodlot’s patrons, perhaps the measure of development might have been negotiated. The public furor over the fate of Fredericton’s York House, a historic building which narrowly avoided obliteration at the hands of its owners, demonstrated the power of common will. It is apathy that allows unfavourable changes to roll through; it is passion that averts them.
The sky looms grey above, and the traffic menaces at the edges of where the woodlot meets the highway, like some great serpent of modernity, poised to strike. Soon, all that can be seen from the road, the dark layers of forest life, will collapse beneath rows of restaurants, box-stores, banks. The serpent constricts. The bulldozers advance