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Thursday, July 07, 2022

Bluff Oak named Bert stands tall but future could be short

<p>Bert, the 81-foot-tall Bluff Oak tree, stands on the Reitz Union North Lawn on Aug. 14, 2015. Bert is the only tree out of 30 that has yet to be taken down in favor of the College of Engineering's Nexus building.</p>

Bert, the 81-foot-tall Bluff Oak tree, stands on the Reitz Union North Lawn on Aug. 14, 2015. Bert is the only tree out of 30 that has yet to be taken down in favor of the College of Engineering's Nexus building.

The sky was dark and Century Tower’s bells echoed across UF campus as rain started to pour where the old tree still stood.

Workers cut most of the trees next to the Nuclear Sciences Building on Friday.

But Bert, a 140-year-old tree, whose impending fate has grabbed local attention, remained.

Long, gray moss hung from his branches, which bared vibrant green leaves that were a sharp contrast to the gloomy sky.

Sometime within the next week, the 81-foot-tall tree will fall, making way for the College of Engineering’s Nexus building, an addition to the Nuclear Sciences Building, UF spokesman Steve Orlando said.  

Workers clearing the trees in the area will be back Saturday morning, one of them said. All trees scheduled to be removed from the area had been chopped by Friday evening, save for Bert.

On the corner of Southwest 13th Street and West University Avenue stood two UF alumni, holding signs in support of the tree whose roots are older than the campus it lives on.

The tree is the third largest Bluff Oak tree in Florida, said Lisa Jelks, an alumna who held a sign that said “Let Bert Be.” Her husband, Howard Jelks, stood beside her holding a sign that read, “Gators for trees.”

As a pickup truck drove by on 13th Street, a man leaned out the passenger window and shouted: "Gators for engineers!"

Jelks

UF alumni Howard Jelks (left) and Lisa Jelks hold up signs at the southwest corner of Southwest 13th Street and West University Avenue on Aug. 14, 2015, expressing their support to keep Bert, the 81-foot-tall Bluff Oak tree, and other heritage trees from being removed from UF's campus.

The Jelks seemed unphased. They said they were dedicated to raising awareness for Bert and the rest of Gainesville’s trees.

“We are a designated tree city in the USA, and you can’t keep that designation if you’re going to cut down all your trees,” Lisa Jelks said.

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The couple, like many Gainesville residents, are upset by the college’s decision to go forward with a project design that required the removal of Bert and other trees.

“At an Alabama school, (trees) were poisoned by the fans from the other school,” Howard Jelks said. “But here, we don’t even need to poison them because we actually come with the chainsaws and cut our own trees down.”

The Nexus addition comes at a time when UF has difficulty keeping its engineering students from switching majors, Orlando said. The university hopes that the addition will increase student retention with the new features it offers.

Through the use of university, private and government funds, the new addition will include state-of-the-art technology and instruction and research lab space, expanded instructional program opportunities and interdisciplinary research funding, and the ability to foster industry partnerships, according to a Nexus project fact sheet.

The selected design was one of many created by the the design team. Efforts were made to preserve Bert and other trees.

But none of the four designs proposed met UF’s Master Plan, according to the minutes from the May 14 Lakes, Vegetation and Landscape Committee meeting. The plan chosen takes out the most heritage trees, but it works best with the program, the Master Plan boundaries and proximity to the Reitz Union, said project manager Cydney McGlothlin at the meeting.  

The purpose of the building’s features, like the lab space, is to keep engineering students excited and interested in their major. The other designs didn’t meet the project goals.

“The one in which the building works the best for its intended purpose is also the one that would require the removal of Bert,” Orlando said.

The design team considered relocating Bert to another location close by but decided against it because it would take eight months and cost $450,000, according to the May 14 meeting minutes. McGlothlin said at the meeting that she believed this wouldn’t be a good use of taxpayer money.

“We certainly understand and appreciate the passion surrounding our campus trees,” Orlando wrote in an email. “As much as we value conservation and the environment, though, the university’s primary role is educating students.”

The date for construction of the addition has not yet been determined, Orlando said.

Still, a number of UF students have fought for the preservation of a tree some see as a symbol of the green city.

Van Truong, an anthropology junior, is one of the students who tweets on behalf of Bert at @SaveOurBert, a Twitter account dedicated to raising awareness for the tree.

The 20-year-old said she spoke with numerous UF students and faculty who have talked about how much they enjoy the trees on campus. However, she said many have mentioned trees getting cut down.

"They've recounted so many stories of trees just going missing over the years," she said.

Although Bert is scheduled to be cut, Vice President for Business Affairs Curtis Reynolds laid out a plan to to mitigate the loss of Bert and more than 30 other trees.

In a letter to the chair of the University Lakes, Vegetation and Landscape Committee, Reynolds wrote that each cut heritage tree will be mitigated by planting six other trees. The remaining trees will be mitigated with two or four, depending on their size.

In addition, he wrote, mitigation funds will help implant part of the Reitz Lawn Master Plan.

In future projects that involve significant tree removal, UF will hire on retainer an independent arborist for consultation, Reynolds added.

Truong said the university could do a better job showing that trees are replanted when mitigation funds are used.  

"I am glad that their mitigation policy is so generous,” she said, “but I'm wary about where they're going to plant the new trees or how they'll maintain it because of the precedent that they're setting now with the trees that are already standing.”

It’s trees like Bert that make Gainesville unique, said UF forest pathology professor Jason Smith. They provide a place to escape the heat, to relax while reading and to set up a picnic.

“People do develop sort of emotional connections with trees,” Smith said. “It’s not really that unusual.”

Staff writer Alexandra Fernandez contributed to this report.

Bert, the 81-foot-tall Bluff Oak tree, stands on the Reitz Union North Lawn on Aug. 14, 2015. Bert is the only tree out of 30 that has yet to be taken down in favor of the College of Engineering's Nexus building.

Bert, the 81-foot-tall Bluff Oak tree, stands on the Reitz Union North Lawn on Aug. 14, 2015. Bert is the only tree out of 30 that has yet to be taken down in favor of the College of Engineering's Nexus building.

Bert, the 81-foot-tall Bluff Oak tree, stands on the Reitz Union North Lawn on Aug. 14, 2015. Bert is the only tree out of 30 that has yet to be taken down in favor of the College of Engineering's Nexus building.

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