September 13, 2011

String of Thefts Frustrates Cornell Plantations

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New surveillance measures and signage will be introduced at the Cornell Plantations after a recent increase in theft, according to Plantations staff.

Donald Rakow, director of Cornell Plantations, said that there has been a “disturbing increase” in the number of thefts from the plantations’ 4,300 acres.

“Just in the last few years we’ve lost containers, we’ve lost particularly rare plants, we’ve lost entire trays of seedlings that were about to be set out into the gardens, and we’ve lost produce that’s been on display in the gardens,” he said.

Rakow said he found it “very hard to truly believe” an individual taking valuable plants directly from the plantations would simply be acting in ignorance.

“Much of Plantations is, in fact, natural areas. In fact, 3,900 acres of our 4,300 acres are natural areas,” he said. “But the examples of theft and pilfering that we’ve been aware of in recent years have occurred in cultivated areas right in the heart of the botanical garden, and I think there’s really no mistaking that.”

Rakow said during his 15 years as director at the Plantations, no stolen property has been recovered, and only one perpetrator has ever been apprehended.

Rakow said that, like Cornell’s Johnson Art Museum, the Plantations’ mission is to exist as a place of education and enrichment for all members of the community.

“Is it acceptable for visitors to go into the [Johnson] Museum and take pieces of art off the wall and take them home?” Rakow said. “Cornell Plantations is a museum of plants. The plants in our gardens — in the arboretum —  really are our museum pieces.”

While staff at the Plantations originally would approach anyone who appeared to be taking plants and tell them to stop, last August the Cornell Police advised Plantations staff to avoid direct confrontation with offenders and take the matter directly to campus authorities.  The new procedure calls for Plantations staff to simply call the police in the event of witnessing a theft.

Rakow said that increased surveillance and signage would be introduced in the “near future” as part of this effort. However, Rakow said that he did not want to discourage students from visiting the Plantations.

“One of [our] highest goals is to increase the number of students who are using and appreciating Cornell Plantations,” he said. “The last thing we want is sending the message that students are not welcome here.”

Bryan David Harrison grad, who worked as a natural areas stewardship intern last summer with several undergraduates, said he thought students new to the Plantations could be unaware of the “etiquette” required in the area. Harrison said one way new students could be made aware of the facilities and opportunities at Cornell Plantations would be to include new material during orientation.

“Have them get a day out, so to speak, in the Plantations, around the grounds on Cornell’s campus,” Harrison said. “Just to help them understand that the plantations really is a public garden and a museum, in a sense.”

Original Author: Byron Kittle