BLACKSBURG — Battles occur every season on the field in Lane Stadium, but just outside of it, another one’s been going on for years.
The approximately 11.5-acre old-growth forest owned by Virginia Tech known as Stadium Woods sits parallel to the east side of the football stadium, and has been a topic of debate in Blacksburg over the past decade.
A large group of local citizens formed the campaign “Save Stadium Woods” in 2011, which successfully kept the university from constructing a new football practice facility where the woods are located. It was eventually built nearby, without harming the forest that has trees upwards of 400 years old.
Videos of the woods being used as a means to get to the stadium, and a YouTube documentary by Virginia Tech graduate Nadia Dawson titled “THIS IS CENTER,” highlighting a massive student tailgate near the woods, have sparked the resurgence of a call to action by a small group of people who want to see change.
A Blacksburg resident and leader of that effort, Rebekah Paulson, who is also the executive director of the group Friends of Stadium Woods, is once again focusing her attention on the woods, and the massive student-led tailgates she deems dangerous to not only the natural habitat near the stadium, but to those that attend the mass gathering as well.
Paulson said the student tailgates on Center Street that attract thousands were first brought to her attention in 2018, and the size of the parties has only grown since then.
“They surge through the woods to get to the stadiums,” she said in a phone interview Thursday evening. “There is also massive amounts of litter and people urinating in the woods. I’ve witnessed all of this firsthand.”
Beth Umberger, a master naturalist who helps take care of the woods, said the overflow of fans trying to get into the stadium from designated paths into the woods can permanently damage root systems, and that problem is exacerbated even when the litter is cleaned up after the games.
“Even when they clean up after themselves, they are still having to walk through the woods off of the designated paths and that can cause permanent damage to the root systems of some of the smaller species of plants in the woods,” she said.
Umberger and Paulson said the overflow into the stadium has been especially bad this year as the size of the pregame festivities has increased.
There is so much underage drinking and irresponsible consumption of alcohol at these events,” Paulson said. “They keep getting bigger every year. It’s unsafe and it’s a blight on the Blacksburg community. The town and the university just don’t seem to care at all. Someone is going to get really hurt or even worse, die.”
Blacksburg Mayor Leslie Hager-Smith believes the preservation of the woods and the mass gatherings on Center Street are two separate issues “being conflated by some members of the community.”
But Hager-Smith said that doesn’t mean that some of their concerns aren’t valid, or that she approves how big the gatherings on Center Street have gotten.
“I find them vulgar and out of keeping with the Blacksburg community I’ve known. Unfortunately, this sort of over-the-top behavior seems to be part of college football nationally. The size and character of the event need to be dialed back,” she wrote in an email earlier this week.
Hager-Smith wrote that the town is working with the university to find alternate solutions and events that might lessen the size of the gatherings.
“We acknowledge that the size of the event has grown unsustainable. To this end, our Police Department has engaged directly with property owners and residents in the Center Street area and with leaders of student organizations on campus … It won’t happen overnight, but we are actively exploring a new direction,” she wrote.
Virginia Tech spokesman Mark Owczarski said the university has no jurisdiction over the Center Street festivities, because it is town property, but said the university regularly communicates with students about responsible behavior, including alcohol consumption.
“To say we don’t care about Center Street couldn’t be farther from the truth,” he said in a phone interview.
Owczarski also noted that students who get in trouble with the town do have to go through a disciplinary process with the university.
“If a student is off campus and gets in trouble, we do have a process for handling those incidents on a case-by-case basis,” he said. “The purpose isn’t to punish but to educate,” he said.
Owczarski also rebuffed Paulson’s claims that the university doesn’t care about protecting the Stadium Woods.
He wrote in an email that the school is “dedicated to preserve, protect and manage the area commonly referred to as Stadium Woods,” as is it is directly mentioned on multiple occasions in the Campus Master Plan that was approved by the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors in 2018.
Additionally, Owczarski wrote that the school recently spent $10,000 to add more than 100 additional corral fences to more clearly define existing pathways used by fans heading to Lane Stadium and to discourage those who seek to take short-cuts, and new metal trash cans have been placed in the area to further mitigate litter.
John Seiler, a professor in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, uses the woods on a regular basis to teach his students about tree identification and said many other professors in his college also use it for instructional purposes.
“I believe the university cares about the woods. In fact I know they do,” he said. “They have plans in place and the university arborist is doing a lot to help preserve the area.”
Paulson said she believes nothing will really be solved until the tailgate is drastically reduced in size. She has also accused the town of not following its own mass gathering ordinance, which requires permits for gatherings of more than 200 people.
However, it’s not quite that simple as the gathering on Center Street is not considered one event, according to Town Attorney Larry Spencer.
“The ordinance is written to address a centralized event (like a concert) conducted on a specific piece of property,” he wrote in an email. “The Center Street pre-game parties involve numerous individual properties; it’s a loose collection of tailgates at the different properties in the area, not a single event Some of the properties have amplified sound, some don’t.”
Spencer also noted that local law enforcement has been more involved in the process this year.
“The Blacksburg police do an excellent job in preventing problems and managing the crowd. This year, the police have had more dialogue with owners/management and tenants,” he wrote. Fencing has been employed to designate separate properties and wrist banding has been used to identify guests at specific properties.
“The participants have been cutting music off early each game and shutting the parties down well before the kickoff. The police have also organized a clean-up of the Stadium Woods area and Center Street area on Sunday.”
Paulson spoke about her concerns Thursday night at a meeting she hosted at the Blacksburg Library that was attended by a dozen others who also are unhappy with the tailgate. She encouraged them to write letters to town and university officials.
She also said she is in the process of trying to find a lawyer who will try and force the town to shutdown the parties through litigation, though she did not specifically explain how that would work.
Hager-Smith said that while the town is working to downsize the event, she said there will always be an element of underage drinking in a college town.
She also said that breaking up the party without a solid plan in place could lead to many smaller gatherings all throughout the town that could ultimately be more unsafe than what is currently happening on Center Street.
While Hager-Smith said the town is taking steps to help find alternatives, including another location for the tailgate, she acknowledged that it’s not going to happen overnight.
“The day is not likely to come when it stops completely,” she said.