Construction of UC Merced Campus Raises Concerns





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Activists spoke out against UC Merced yesterday and accused university officials of ignoring environmental review procedures in an attempt to finish the project on time.

Environmentalists said the university will destroy an abundance of vernal pools that are located in the vicinity of the 10th UC campus.

A vernal pool is a marsh-like area that forms in the lowlands during the rainy season. These pools house fairy shrimp, which are on the endangered species list, environmentalists said.

Gov. Gray Davis announced in January that he would step up the time schedule to complete UC Merced, saying that the campus was necessary to handle a flood of new students.

Ione Scott, a member of the Tehipite chapter of the Sierra Club, said vernal pools must take first priority in locating Merced's new campus.

"We're very concerned," she said. "This is the area with the most vernal pools. It will be awfully hard for them to build anything without disturbing them. We're talking about an area that is pristine. It has never been disturbed before."

She said that, although the university will only build on approximately 2,000 acres of the 10,000-acre site, it will bring roads, shops and new restaurants with it.

This type of construction will be beneficial to the local economy but could destroy the vernal pools, she added.

"The school itself isn't something we're against," she said. "But this is an area where there has been so little disturbed at this point. To make this thing work, they should put the campus somewhere where there wouldn't have to be new roads and businesses."

Although she gave no specifics, Scott said the Sierra Club would likely try to slow down construction of the university, bringing a lawsuit if necessary.

"It's going to be delayed," she said. "When they started doing the reports on the environmental impact, they just didn't realize how many vernal pools are out there."

But UC officials said they will not compromise their goal to construct the university by the year 2004.

UC spokesperson Chuck McFadden said the university will make a concerted effort to disturb as few vernal pools as possible.

"The fact is that the university did exhaustive surveys before that site was selected," he said. "It's a question of how do we accommodate the expected enrollment and the need for a campus in central California? When the university is established, every effort will be made to research the ecology of the vernal pools."

He said local groups were given ample time to express their concerns. The university first began to gather input for a Merced campus in 1985, he added.

"We've done quite a long search," he said. "This didn't just come out of the blue."

McFadden said he believes the UC system will be able to work with environmentalists to build the campus.

"I'm confident that we will reach an accommodation with the concerns of environmentalists," he said. "It's a question of weighing varying priorities. There's the priority of the much-needed campus in the Central Valley balanced against the priority of protecting the ecology of the area."

Marsh Pitman, who works in the Merced group of the Sierra Club's Tehipite chapter, said the land on which the university chooses to build could determine how many vernal pools are impacted.

"Some areas have 10 percent of the pools and some have 7 (percent)," he said. "Until they've made that decision, we can't determine just how they're going to preserve those areas."

The prospective site is more than 10,300 acres. Pitman said he hopes the UC system will choose to preserve at least 5,000 acres.

He also expressed concern about a possible road connecting the university to the city of Merced and to the main highway.

Other modes of transportation would be far more efficient and would reduce damage to the environment, he added.

"UC Merced has problems, but it has benefits, too," he said. "A light rail would reduce these problems."

Emily Francis, spokesperson for the student environmental group CalPIRG, said she supports the "preservation of habitat" but understands the necessity to build another campus.

"I see the need to expand the university into new areas, but since this expansion is going to happen, the university should make sure that it's acting responsibly to preserve the habitat of the area," she said. "They cannot just destroy the ecosystem."

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