The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission cut down several trees in Guilford Woods in February to repair a water main pipe, sparking frustration among University of Maryland community members who had previously advocated to protect the same land from deforestation.

Commission spokesperson Lyn Riggins said the water company cut down 11 large trees and about 30 smaller trees starting Feb. 23 after finding that a 16-foot section of a main water line in the woods was failing. The trees growing on top of the pipe needed to be removed for access, she said in an emailed statement to The Diamondback.

Community members said the commission did not give any notice before beginning the repairs, which left people like associate geology professor Nicholas Schmerr confused seeing trees in the woods that had been cut down.

“We were working hard to try and preserve the woods and here’s somebody out there doing something that’s taking down and damaging the environment,” Schmerr said. “They’ve got to do that no matter what. But it’s a question of, ‘did they talk to the university? What was the communication?’”

Guilford Woods, which spans about 40-acres of tree cover on the south part of the university’s campus, was the center of controversy in 2021 when this university’s administration announced a new graduate housing development that would have deforested nine acres of land, The Diamondback previously reported. After months of backlash from activists, including Schmerr, the development did not occur.

Stephen Prince, a professor emeritus in this geographical sciences department, said he visited Guilford Woods repeatedly after he saw the trees being cut down last month, hoping to talk to workers about what was happening.

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The lack of communication frustrated Prince. He said the university should have alerted the campus community about the repair, especially given past efforts to protect Guilford Woods from development.

“At this point, we do not know anything about how the university promised to look after those woods,” Prince said. “The university is clearly taking an interest in this case, but nobody there has indicated or been in contact with us.”

In a statement to The Diamondback, this university said that it had no involvement in the repair and only contacted the sanitary commission to confirm that the group was conducting the work. The commission has a right-of-way that allows them to enter parts of the university’s property without advance notice, the statement said.

But Riggins said the sanitary commission has been coordinating with Christopher Ho, a civil engineer for Facilities Management at this university.

Ho did not respond to a request for comment. This university emphasized that it “has no involvement” when The Diamondback asked about Ho’s alleged role in the project.

Preventing habitat degradation in Guilford Woods is especially important, Prince said. The woodland serves as a refuge for various species, such as the red-shouldered hawk, owls and bats, he added.

For Prince, it was “sort of encouraging” to find out older trees were preserved during the repair and the cutting was not excessive.

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Riggins said in the statement that crews will “restore the impacted area as closely as possible to its original condition” after completing the pipe repair in the woods. The commission also hopes to connect with community members to apologize and provide updates on the work “very soon.”

“We understand the inconvenience this type of work can cause,” the statement said. “We clearly missed the mark communicating to our customers in the area.”

Schmerr and Prince said they understand why the trees had to be cut to repair the pipe. Schmerr appreciated that the commission took precautions such as using wood chips, which are biodegradable, instead of gravel to minimize environmental harm.

But local community members should have been made aware of the repair so it didn’t surprise anyone, he added.

Jan-Michael Archer, who played a large advocacy role in preventing the 2021 development of Guilford Woods, said preserving the area is critical within the context of the current global climate crisis. Archer echoed that there should have been a notice prior to the trees being cut.

“We can not be fully engaged if these things are kept from us,” the environmental health sciences doctoral student said. “We really can’t afford to lose standing trees.”