Dr. Bruce Allison examines the oak tree on the Memorial Union Terrace.
The Memorial Union Reinvestment project is dedicated to preserving the past and imagining the next 100 years of this beloved building. Memorial Union is in dire need of more programming space for students and Union members, among other renovations and improvements. More program space would provide a greater opportunity for outdoor recreation, increased and enhanced Hoofers space, new and improved theater spaces, and overall more space for students to expand on their education outside the classroom.
The question is where to find this space. The site is bound by two streets, Lake Mendota and the Red Gym, which leaves the project with two logical options: expand onto the historic Terrace or expand underground. The obvious decision was to expand underground; however, this would require removing a large historic oak tree just to the east of the Wisconsin Union Theater.
This large white oak tree has been studied extensively over the last 30 years by Dr. R. Bruce Allison, who is an ASCA registered consulting arborist, an ISA board-certified master arborist, and a UW professor in the Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology. In his recent 2011 Terrace Tree Inspection Report, Dr. Allison found the oak tree to be unhealthy and deteriorating, with a large amount of internal decay and root rot. The condition of this tree leaves it more susceptible to failure and could pose a safety issue for the patrons enjoying the Terrace as well as the Union Theater. (This information is available on the MUR website, unionreinvestment.wisc.edu along with other updates, renderings and features concerning the renovation.)
The imperative to expand program space as part of the renovation and the discovery that the white oak is unhealthy and may not live more than another 10 years resulted in the conclusion to remove the tree. Even if we were not building under the tree, the site is way too tight to build around it and expect the tree to live. Oaks are especially sensitive to root compaction and dirt and dust accumulation on their leaves during construction. Overall, the additional strain placed on the tree's root structure due to construction makes building around the tree infeasible.
Removing one tree, however, does not mean that sustaining the Terrace tree canopy is not a priority. Preserving and enhancing the Terrace tree canopy is extremely important to most Union visitors, students and Union members, and is of utmost importance for the MUR project. Phase 1 of the project calls for adding 90 more trees and shrubs to the site, which will greatly enhance the existing canopy -- which Prof. Allison reported is flourishing, I might add. The large oak tree will be replaced by a new tree in a location nearby where it can grow for hundreds of years and will hopefully become just as beloved as the white oak it is replacing.
Colin Plunkett is the student project manager of the Memorial Union Reinvestment project. "Citizen" is an opinion series that presents the views of the author. If you would like to reply, please comment or consider submitting an op-ed in response.