FAU alumni live in trees to prevent their destruction
By Jordan Robrish
For more than six weeks, environmental activists living strapped to slash pines in a forest across from the Jupiter campus have faced the elements — and police — while protesting the construction of a research facility that, according to them, would kill endangered plants and animals.
“I want to protect the Briger Forest from destruction,” said 25-year-old Brandon Block, a member of environmental group Everglades Earth First, and one of four FAU alumni who had been living in the forest. “I have been living at peace with nature up in the trees feeling like a bird in a nest.”
But according to Rachel Kijewski, another one of the tree-sitters on March 21, Palm Beach Gardens Police confiscated and destroyed tree-sitters’ equipment, burned the trees where some protesters were living and arrested some of them, including Block, on counts of trespassing.
Courtney Claar, 23, was also among the activists arrested.
“I definitely feel today that there was an increase in the amount of repression of this protest that’s going on,” Claar told the Palm Beach Post.
Claar said that group members had been collectively warned that the space they were inhabiting was a no-trespassing area, but said that March 21 marked the first significant police presence inside the forest.
The remaining protesters have immerged deeper into the forest in an attempt to avoid police and keep construction from moving in, Kijewski said.
The tree-sitters are protesting the expansion and construction of a 70-acre facility. The city and the Scripps Florida Research Institute want to build a biotech laboratory on the land in the Briger Forest, just south of Donald Ross Road.
The environmentalists believe if construction into the 683-acre forest proceeds, many threatened and endangered species of plants and animals like the hand fern, cabbage palm, gopher tortoises and screeching bald eagle, the national emblem, will lose their habitat and die.
Scripps is the largest not-for-profit biomedical research firm in the world. They are involved in conducting research to help cure diseases such as Parkinson’s, cancer and the HIV/AIDS, according to its website.
Scripps already has a permanent facility next to FAU’s Jupiter campus. It employs more than 300 scientists, technicians and administrators.
The planned expansion into the forest calls for an additional 1.6-million-square-foot Scripps Research and Development Biotech facility, surrounded by over 2,700 homes. Once the project is completed, Scripps is planning a partnership with FAU, environmentalists said.
According to the environmental group, Scripps had already planned to build their new facility on a patch of land in Lake Worth known as Mecca Farms.
The Palm Beach County Commission agreed to buy 1,919 acres of land for $60 million in 2004. The commission then spent $40 million to plan, pull permits and begin construction, while spending an additional $51 million on a water pipeline to service Mecca Farms.
However, the proposed Scripps facility on Mecca Farms was never built due to mounting pressure from citizens and environmental groups such as Everglades Earth First.
Kathleen Ryan, an executive assistant for Scripps, declined to comment for this story.
The environmental activists said they will continue to live in the forest. They plan on continuing to protest until they achieve what they seek or until police finally detain all of them.