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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, January 25, 2010

Students, faculty fighting to save fig tree

By David Shapiro

People rally around symbols of comfort and stability in difficult times, and at the University of Hawai'i-Mänoa, it's a nearly 100-year-old comose fig tree.

More than 1,800 students and faculty have signed petitions protesting plans to cut down the tree to make way for a $35 million expansion of the Campus Center to add recreational and fitness facilities, which the Campus Center Board says will foster a more vibrant campus environment and enhance student life.

According to the UH student newspaper, Ka Leo, the expansion will add two multipurpose courts, a fitness center, two multipurpose studios, locker and shower rooms, a jogging track, and storage and laundry spaces to a multistory structure that already includes a bookstore, dining room, fast-food outlets, a ballroom, offices and meeting rooms.

Some critics question the wisdom of such an expenditure in a difficult economy when UH is reeling from budget cuts, furloughs and reduced class schedules — especially when recreational facilities and fitness options are already being expanded at Cooke Field on the lower campus.

But mostly, they just don't want to lose the solace and beauty of a rare and majestic old tree to make way for another concrete monolith.

The comose fig is the only one of its kind on campus and has a history in that it was planted by the first UH botany professor, Joseph Rock, who wrote the book "Indigenous Trees of the Hawaiian Islands."

Those fighting to save the tree believe the building plans can be revised to accommodate it, as the initial construction plans envisioned.

Sparing the comose fig is supported by the UH Landscape Advisory Committee and the Outdoor Circle, which called the tree "part of a historic landscape that must be preserved as part of the living history of the Mänoa campus."

The petitions to save the tree are being circulated by botany student Adam Williams, who was quoted in Ka Leo describing the fig as "one of the most beautiful and rare trees at the university and beyond, with immeasurable aesthetic value."

"And we don't even need to mention the ecosystem services provided by such a massive tree," he said, "shade, carbon sequestration, oxygen production and a pleasing sight that greatly enhances the campus environment."

Williams will present his petitions today to the Campus Center Board, which is learning the hard way that old trees have almost a mystical ability to bring peace and comfort — and you mess with them at your peril.