Palouse Restoration’s ‘living, learning laboratory’ is a natural fit with STEM program.

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The Palouse Prairie region in Eastern Washington is a lush grassland, filled with gently rolling hills, clay-rich soils and fields of wildflowers. Or, at least it was, before nearly 99 percent of the land was transformed into agricultural fields.

However, the Palouse Prairie Restoration Project aims to change all that. The three-phase project is being spearheaded by Eastern Washington University and takes place on 150 acres the university owns on the west end of campus.

Erik Budsberg, project manager and sustainability coordinator for the Palouse Prairie Restoration Project.
Erik Budsberg, project manager and sustainability coordinator for the Palouse Prairie Restoration Project.

According to project manager and sustainability coordinator Erik Budsberg, the land has been farmed since 1950. Although the farmers have been good stewards of the land, it’s time for it to be restored to what the ecosystem would’ve been without human interaction.

“We’re trying to create what’s called a living, learning laboratory; essentially a big outdoor space that will allow people to study all different dynamics of how you restore a natural eco system, how you coexist with that on your campus, and how it affects your community,” Budsberg says.

The goals for the project include creating opportunities for education for students both at the college and at elementary and middle schools within the community, research opportunities for faculty, a space for recreation, and finally, an opportunity for community outreach.

First steps include converting roughly 10 acres into a pilot plot to determine which plant species will thrive; laying the groundwork for continuing land management, a process that could take three to five years.

“Within that time, we’ll have the trail system out there and the ability for people to get out there and see it happen. Our faculty are already doing research on the site, so it doesn’t hold up the research or educational components,” Budsberg says.

“The Eastern College of STEM has a real strength in wildlife restoration, wildlife management, and fisheries management, so the Palouse restoration is squarely in the middle of what our biology, environmental science, and geology departments do,” Dr. David Bowman, dean of the College of STEM adds.

Bowman calls the Palouse Restoration Project a chance to be the university’s “front yard,” and a way for the public to engage with the university.

Even more exciting for him and the STEM program is the chance to monitor how the environment will react as it goes from a man-made system to a more natural state.

Above all, it’s another chance for the university to “walk the walk” according to Bowman, in terms of its commitment to sustainability. For instance, since 1976, in cooperation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, EWU has operated a 4,600-square-foot classroom and laboratory facility at the nearby Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge, one of only three such partnerships in the country.

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