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Neighbors, environmentalists protest New College tree-cutting

Written by on Wednesday, June 5, 2024

As the governor was expected for an anti-woke conference, a small crowd gathers across the street under a big kapok tree.

By Johannes Werner

Original Air Date: June 5, 2024

Host: As Gov. Ron DeSantis was expected to speak at New College’s Sainer Auditorium, there was a small protest across the street. Actually, a teach-in. Led by retired environmental science professor Jono Miller, other teachers, New College students, and community members — most of them residents of the Uplands neighborhood just north of the campus — took issue, not with the war on Woke, but with New College’s war on historic trees. Our news team was there.

Johannes Werner: The heat approached three digits on early Saturday afternoon, and the crazy ants didn’t help. But the giant kapok tree provided solid shade. Gathering at its roots were about 20 community members outraged by the college administration’s cutting of historic slash pines and palm trees in the nearby Uplands Preserve.

Two weeks earlier, New College had begun clearing the bayfront land of palm trees, to make space for a soccer field and beach volleyball courts. Blindsided neighbors scrambled and got the City of Sarasota to issue a stop order. But that lasted barely five days. Last Wednesday, the city yielded, and the college finished its work cutting down an estimated 40 trees. That produced gasps among observers when a backhoe began bringing down large slash pines in loud crashes.

So here were the tree defenders, across the street from where Gov. Ron DeSantis made his case about how leftist infection must be eradicated from university bodies. The protesters drew signs, they brought instruments to make music (although that didn’t flourish amid the heat), and they talked about the importance of trees. Sean Patton, a New College alum who is now an environmental consultant and teacher at Ringling College of Art and Design, explained.

Sean Patton: I am a New College alumni and a professor of biodiversity. I run a company that does habitat restoration, and I don’t like a lot of things they’re doing a New College right now.

JW: So what is it that they’re doing at the Uplands Preserve?

SP: So there’s already quite a few areas of large turf grass and sod grass that would be good for sports areas and sports stadiums. But instead, they’re going to an area like the bayfront that has a lot of black mangrove, slash pines, and old grand live oaks that are used by not only the New College community, but by the local community for shade. They found that every kilometer of native trees along shorelines saves the average homeowner $430 during a hurricane. So not only are they removing all these massive trees, it’s going to make hurricane damage worse. I don’t know about y’all, but I lost my house to hurricane Ian. In Sarasota, a bunch of trees fell, melaleuca trees, non-native trees that are not hurricane safe. So I’m worried about more hurricane damage. And they’re chopping down trees, they’re not obeying permitting rules, they’re forcing their way to the city arborist very, very quickly. Like, you’re supposed to preserve these trees wherever possible. There’s already plenty of open fields at New College. They’re just trying to cut down as much stuff as they can.

JW: Richard Parker, who recently restored a home near the Uplands Preserve, showed photos and a video of a sick osprey he found there. He helped it survive a bad case of eating Red Tide fish. Parker added that the downed slash pines in the Uplands Preserve were habitat for birds of prey.

Richard Parker: We are restoring a home near the Uplands, in Whitfield. There’s a pair of ospreys that have lived over there for a while. About two years ago now, I went over there and there was on my side yard, on the ground, the male Osprey and obviously sick. I was able to walk right over to him. He didn’t even try to fight me or bite me or anything, because he knew I was trying to help, I guess. Anyway, I inspected his wings, and his legs, and everything. And he had no injuries. He was just really sick. Later, I found out it was from eating a Red Tide fish. Back a couple of years ago, we had the Red Tide. I have a friend on Anna Maria Island that does animal rescue professionally. His name is Ed. I called him, he came, and got the bird. It took about three months to get him back into strong health again. He brought him back to me in a cage, and I was able to release him in the side yard, right where I had gotten him from. It was funny because he first … he wasn’t sure about coming out of the cage. He walked out of the cage, about a foot out of the cage. And he looked at me, and he turned and looked at the sky. Then he turned and looked at me again. Then he turned and looked at the sky again. Then he turned and looked at me one more time, and then took off, and his mate was in the sky already, waiting for him. And since then he’s been hanging out in my tree right over a dead tree, on the side of my RV. He dropped the feather for me the other day so we’re still friends.

JW: In the Uplands they’re cutting old slash pines. Is that something to be concerned about?

RP: Absolutely. I’ve been involved with eagles and birds of prey for a long time, in different places. I know there is a bald eagle that lives very close here. I haven’t really seen his nest yet, but he’s always on campus. And there’s definitely ospreys there. There’s three or four of them actually here. So I don’t know if they had a nest in those trees, but they were definitely in those trees a lot feeding because they would catch the fish in the bay and then go sit in the trees and eat. So it’s definitely been a really nice wildlife preserve area down there. That is now being changed.

JW: At one point, a New College student came from the event across the street, balancing food on two high-piled plates he brought from the event’s buffet. He described himself as an anarchist and said he wanted to help because he lives in the Uplands.

Meanwhile, the neighbors’ fight continues. They obtained a six-page agreement signed in 2005 between the University of South Florida and New College, restricting use of the preserve to passive recreation. Which, presumably, would not include playing soccer or volleyball.

Stay tuned.

Reporting from across the New College campus, this has been Johannes Werner for WSLR News.


WSLR News aims to keep the local community informed with our 1/2 hour local news show, quarterly newspaper and social media feeds. The local news broadcast airs on Wednesdays and Fridays at 6pm.