The very owls Florida Atlantic University is named after are being seriously threatened by the school's ever-expanding buildings and dormitories. Burrowing owls, along with gopher tortoises and other species of life, currently live in a nature preserve nestled between the campus parking lot and Boca Raton Airport.
And, as the school continues to build and expand, the preserve, along with the animals in it, are being threatened, concerned environmentalists and FAU students say.
In 2009, 30 acres of the preserve was consumed by the construction of the new FAU football stadium. The habitat shrunk from 120 acres to 90 after that. And now comes news of a possible 40 more acres will be taken to make way for new dormitories.
While the expansion and construction of new buildings is good for the school, it's become a serious problem for the habitat and the fragile life in it. And that's the dilemma FAU finds itself in.
FAU students and environmental activists have placed a Care2 petition up online, demanding the school halt its plans. The petition, started by student Jessica Huffman, has already garnered more than 1,000 signatures.
According to Huffman, the planned dorms expansion will crowd the already-cramped gopher tortoises that live in the habitat into an even smaller space and will eventually force the owls away as their burrows are covered.
"It is ironic and unfortunate," she says. "The owl is our school's mascot, and FAU was declared an owl sanctuary in 1971 by the Audubon Society."
But protecting the preserve is more than just conserving the environment and keeping already-threatened species from being harmed. It's also about the good of the university itself.
The preserve provides research opportunities for several fields of study, according to Huffman, including ecology, biology, chemistry, geoscience, and environment. The area is teeming with 300 species of animals, insects, and plant life.
Moving the animals has been considered. But the gopher tortoises, specifically, are so fragile that moving them may kill them.
According to FAU, the plans are far from officially coming to fruition at all.
"The petition is assuming that elements of our master plan document are definite when they are not," FAU's Director of Media Relations Lisa Metcalf tells New Times. "A master plan is simply a general and long-term planning document that evolves over time. It is required by the city so they can properly plan for utility and traffic needs, among other things."
Metcalf explains that these types of plans tend to adapt and change over time, meaning there are no definitive plans for expansion over the habitat.
The Boca Campus master plan identifies approximately 15.1 acres west of Parking Garage III, for future housing as part of Innovation Village, Metfcalf explains. But, she says, "there are no current plans for the immediate development in this area."
FAU Architect Tom Donaudy told University Press last year about other factors the school would have to evaluate to see about further development.
"The question that we are going to ask ourselves as we are moving forward in the next phase of housing is, 'Do we want it to be for the underclassmen or for the upperclassmen?'" Donaudy told the paper.
If FAU decided that there is a greater need for freshman and junior housing, Donaudy explained, then it might look to build on the south side of campus. But if it decided to increase housing for juniors and seniors, the project would resume on the preserve.
This is where Huffman's petition comes in, reminding people that the Audubon Society declared FAU an Owl Sanctuary in 1971 but that the habitat itself plays an important role for the students as a while.
From the petition:
The time is now to stand up for both students that use the FAU Preserve and the animals that live within it. We will not stand idle and watch this habitat get destroyed as the years go by. We can save what is left of the FAU Preserve........
Please, Florida Atlantic University, we would like you to create a legal easment and not develop anymore on the FAU Preserve. Help us maintain this habitat, as it will benefit the University more than a few hundred dorms will. If you destroy it, you will not only negatively effect its inhabitants and your student body, but it will also put you behind most other major universities that have preserves/ land set aside that they will not be developed on.