by Bob Fitrakis
“Seek and ye shall find,” the Good Book tells us. As we approach Earth Day, we should applaud those students who staged a two-day sit-in in front of OSU President Gordon Gee’s office to elevate the issue of developing the wetlands at the Firestone estate in the Akron area.
The fabulously wealthy Firestone family, of tire fame, kept the land in pristine condition as a riding retreat. The family’s fortune allowed it to preserve some of Ohio’s most spectacular remaining wilderness. But, it’s not simply the wilderness–that includes century-old white oak and tamarack trees–that makes it unique. It’s the five bogs on the property, some of the last in the state, that propelled the students to action.
Those familiar with Ohio history know that the European settlers, in less than two centuries, have filled in 90 percent of the state’s original wetlands. Take a look sometime at 19th century maps of Ohio. You may find that your favorite mall or fast-food franchise is sitting on a former swamp site or built over an old creekbed. Early settlers, to say the least, were not as eco-friendly as the Native Americans they were brutally driving out. Neither did the settlers understand the intricate and delicate role of wetlands in our ecosystem. Earth scientists often describe the wetlands as a giant sponge that absorbs excess water from heavy rains. Most agree that the recent devastating Midwestern floods were caused in part by the loss of such a high percentage of original wetlands.
In September 1994, The Ohio State University purchased 1,500 acres of the former Firestone estate for $5 million–a rock-bottom price provided for in Raymond Firestone’s will. OSU trustees and President Gee, in the cynical tradition of quick-buck, megaversity land speculation, saw the chance to sell it for $15 million. Amidst allegations that the $5 million to purchase the land was improperly diverted from a university endowment, OSU strangely contracted with the Galbreath Company to sell the land. Those of you into scandals of the rich and famous may recall that the Firestones and the Galbreaths were merged by marriage. Not too long ago, the Firestone heirs were suing their in-laws in one of those nasty “you’re fleecing poor senile granny” suits.
The Galbreaths had just the right stuff to sell this hot new piece of property, according to the OSU board of trustees. Don’t look for any environmentalists on that board. Any analysis of the social class of the trustees gives new meaning to the tired old Marxist cliche “executive committee of the bourgeoisie.” So, when Student Environmental Action Coalition (SEAC) members met with OSU’s Firestone working group, chaired by Trustee David Brennan on November 30, 1995, they were given a lesson in Classical Capitalist Economics 101. The students were told the university had one priority and one priority only–maximum economic gain. Some of the students believing that the university served other functions as well, say, educational, inquired as to what they could do to help preserve the wetlands. But there was only one correct answer on the pop quiz, and one university official supplied it, “Find someone with $15 million.”
Even more disturbing, the local Bath Township trustees want to designate the land as a natural preserve to be utilized for educational and research purposes. Thus, The Ohio State University, the flagship and pride of Buckeye higher education, finds itself pitted against 10 other Ohio educational institutions that want to use the land as an outdoor lab. This list includes the University of Akron, Kent State University, Oberlin College, John Carroll University, Baldwin-Wallace College, and the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, among others.
OSU has gone into maximum spin control mode in order to obfuscate this issue. University officials claim that they have “sought and considered seriously the concerns of residents of the area surrounding the Firestone estate.” Moreover, they claim that they are “very sensitive to community and environmental concerns.” Yet, rhetoric aside, OSU has steadfastly refused to put any restriction on the land’s development. So they kill all the beavers, we get the bucks, buckaroo.
Recently in Ithaca, New York, home of the prestigious Cornell University, Wal-Mart tried to develop a similar wetland site. Only the well-organized outrage of the local citizenry prevented an environmental catastrophe.
OSU Executive Director of Communication Malcolm Baroway authoritatively intoned that it would be wrong for OSU to put restrictions on the land since it was protected by “federal EPA law.” Those of you who follow such things know that ever since George Bush allowed Vice President Dan Quayle to run amok with his Council on Competitiveness, federal wetland laws have more loopholes for wealthy developers than does the U.S. tax code. A developer is allowed to swap one wetland for another. Indeed, they’re allowed to dig a big hole in the ground, let it fill up with water in some suburban industrial park, call it a wetland, and exchange it for the likes of the bogs on the Firestone estate. Quayle in his genius, pretty much defined any standing water for more than a few days as a wetland. By Quayle’s definition, I could swap my basement for the Firestone wetlands and probably get away with it.
SEAC’s successful sit-in resulted in an open forum being scheduled for tomorrow, Thursday, at 3 p.m. at the second floor conference theater at the Ohio Union, which President Gee has promised to attend. SEAC has found the courage of its convictions to take on the holy of holies, OSU. And as the Good Book also points out, a basic definition of righteousness is speaking truth to power. May truth prevail this Earth Day.