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EWU Project To Restore 120 Acres Of Farmland To Prairie

Eastern Washington University

During the last 150 years, the majority of the Palouse prairie region has been converted to farmland. According to researchers, less than one percent of the natural habitat remains in small, scattered patches.

The Palouse comes as far north as Spokane’s West Plains.

A project through Eastern Washington University aims to restore and preserve a portion of it for educational and recreational uses.

Since the early 1950s, Eastern has leased about 120 acres of land west of campus to a local farmer for wheat production. Previously the land was seen as unsuitable for development because of its rolling hills, distance from campus and lack of infrastructure.

"We’ve kinda been revisiting it and decided that there are better ways for us to use the land," said Erik Budsberg, the university sustainability coordinator, who is also the project manager. "That being, something that would be a better resource for our students and faculty here, and for our community members. What that means for us is now looking at the land and restoring it to its native habitat."

Right now the land is tilled. It’s an active farm.

"I’m guessing, we’ll get bunch grasses out there looking pretty good and making it look like a grassland within five years," said Dr. Justin Bastow from Eastern’s Biology Department. He studies ecosystems and soil ecology. "But, then, you know, how long until you get the full range of flowers and bugs and worms and wetlands and little patch of pine trees and whatnot, that may be a decade-long process."

The restored land will act as a research space and outdoor classroom, as well as include a network of non-motorized, multi-use trails. Everybody wants in on it: the biology, history, archaeology, public health and education departments have already proposed uses for the site.

The project was greenlighted in the summer of 2017 and much of the background planning is done. Budsberg says estimates show the university will need to invest a little more than $100,000 over the next five years. Faculty and staff are looking into grants to help with funding different aspects of the project.

They already received one grant in August. It was a $100,000 EPA environmental  education grant. It will fund the work of two graduate students who will work with community and school groups.

"In the K-12 system, they don’t have in their budgets to be able to go on big trips or anything like that. This is providing something that’s local, potentially that a lot of the local schools could walk there and engage in environmental education, basically in their own backyard," said Dr. Kathryn Baldwin, one of the grant’s project directors.

She said the land will be a resource for local schools and teachers in training to learn about outdoor instruction. She added EWU already has partners from preschool to high school interested in growing vegetation that will be transplanted to the area.

Planting for a test site will begin next fall. Depending on the success of the pilot site, restoration for the full 120 or so acres could begin as soon as fall 2020.

Outside of education, the hope is to hold some sort of festival in the future, and the trail could be developed for use by the university and high school cross country teams.