Harvard University has a research forest. So does Duke. Yale has multiple forests. The University of Maryland has "the wooded hillock." a 24-acre patch of trees at the northern tip of the state's flagship public campus.
Though tiny, largely unheralded and perhaps a bit scruffy by comparison, the forest near the Comcast Center is brimming with biodiversity, no less valuable to the faculty and students who use it than its more heralded Ivy League counterparts.
Targeted for bulldozing a few years back to provide parking for buses and other support services, the hillock was spared after months of passionate protests by students and faculty, who argued the woods were a green oasis worth preserving on the sprawling 1,400-acre flagship campus.
Now, a couple years after the crisis, preservation advocates are documenting the richness of plant and animal life on the hillock, which is used as both an outdoor classroom and a laboratory. Earlier this week, Marla S. McIntosh, a professor of urban forestry, led students, faculty and invited outside experts on a "BioBlitz" of the forest to tally everything they could find in a few hours.
"It's a treasure," she said, as she led me into the woods for a quick tour. "It just boggles my mind that they were going to turn something like this into a parking lot."
Controversy over the hillock surfaced in spring of 2009 as the university was celebrating its designation as an arboretum and a "tree campus" - justifiable recognition, UM officials thought, of their commitment to sustainability.
They insisted the woods were needed to accommodate a long-planned East Campus redevelopment aimed at enhancing downtown College Park. The plan was to clear nine acres of woods to relocate maintenance sheds, a mail-handling depot and parking for the university's fleet of buses.
McIntosh was caught in the middle of the flareup. At the time, she was director of the university's new arboretum. She felt pressured to support the administration's stance, she recalls, even though she disagreed. She resolved her internal conflict by resigning her administrator's post and becoming an outspoken advocate for saving the hillock.
Pressured by protests from students and faculty, university officials eventually relented after acquiring an alternative location for the service facilities - a former Washington Post printing plant a few miles from campus.
Now, university officials say, they're committed to preserving the patch of woods. "It is going to remain in its current natural state," UM spokesman David Ottalini said. "There are no plans at all to do anything with it other than to leave it that way." The wooded hillock is now listed in the university's master plan as one of the "iconic landscape settings" on campus that should be preserved and enhanced.
Not entirely convinced that the hillock is secure for all time, McIntosh is committed to reinforcing its importance, both as an ecosystem and an educational asset for the university. She taught an honors seminar this semester titled "Sustaining the Wooded Hillock: A Living Classroom." As part of that, the class organized this week's "bioblitz" to identify and document the site from the treetops to the soil beneath the roots. In addition to the 11 students in the class (nearly all engineers, McIntosh notes), 25 to 30 others swarmed the woods to see and take note of what was there.
Among those joining in the survey was Kirsten Johnson, president of the Maryland Native Plant Society, who said the hillock is a good example of a once-common terrace gravel forest. These elevated areas of gravelly acidic soils tend to have lots of oak trees, with blueberries and huckleberries in the understory.
"Terrace gravel used to be all up and down the eastern seaboard," she said, but development has claimed much of it. "Now we just have these little remnants."
McIntosh said visitors have identified seven different species of oak on the hillock. There are beech trees and pines as well, and some blueberry bushes, with fruit not yet completely eaten by deer that have browsed much of the understory. A tornado that struck campus in 2001 tore trees off the top of the hillock, and lightning strikes have felled others, opening up the forest floor to sunlight and new growth.
A clutch of birders tallied 45 species in just a few hours, despite overcast and windy conditions that were less than ideal for spotting or even hearing birds. Another expert visitor spotted five different species of bees, and found one nest of miner bees. A couple of grad students from Howard University found three snakes and a common five-lined skink, McIntosh reported.
A team of students, led by environmental science major Daniela Miller, a senior from Carroll County, collected soil samples to count the bacteria in them.
Small colored flags and tape mark the boundaries of various scientific study sites, and cups partly filled with propylene glycol were posted at various spots to attract and collect flying insects.
"This is awesome," said Cori Stedman, a senior from Columbia who wore a T-shirt with the message: "I (heart) the hillock".
McIntosh says the hillock's presence on the College Park campus makes it an ideal site for learning and student research. She pointed to a recently toppled tree, its tangle of roots still encased in a ball of pebbly soil.
"How else can you see under a tree?" she asked.
"There aren't many fragments left," McIntosh concluded, "but if we're going to keep one, this is the one to keep."