The Prairie Restoration Project
In the days before the land was plotted, plowed and paved, the patch of Palouse prairie that EWU calls home was part of a wild, magnificent landscape; a terrestrial ocean of sun-kissed rolling hills carpeted by a vast, kaleidoscopic medley of native flora.
Today almost nothing of the original Palouse prairie remains. If in only a small way, Eastern Washington University hopes to change that.
The Prairie Restoration Project will restore a 120-acre parcel of university-owned land to its native habitat, thus creating a “living laboratory” of restored Palouse prairie proximate to the Cheney campus. Together with the Spokane and other local tribes — Native peoples who for millennia called these bounteous hills home — we will connect with the land and learn from it.
The project will provide a unique educational and recreational space, one that connects visitors to a long-lost landscape. It will also advance research and learning opportunities, creating a model for boosting regional biodiversity.
A grant from the EWU Foundation funded much of the planning and research. Biology students and faculty collaborated to create a workshop that connected land-restoration experts from across the region with Eastern students. Using their research, and input from the experts, the students then put together a master plan for the land restoration.
“A big part of the project is to make it really inclusive", says Erik Budsberg, Prairie Restoration project leader and EWU sustainability Coordinator. “We want to use it to de-silo things, to truly create a lot of multidisciplinary relationships and opportunities across campus.”
Project leaders have also worked with faculty and students in departments across the campus. The opportunities for collaboration will only grow as the pilot site expands.
- Identified native plants and mapped remnants of Palouse prairie landscapes
- Collected and cleaned seeds to develop a seed bank
- Expanded garden space and greenhouse use for the prairie nursery
- Developed a master plan for the pilot plots
- Worked with the Salish School of Spokane, a private K-12 school dedicated to preserving the culture and language of the Native American tribes, to learn more about prairie communities and propagate plants together
- Environmental science is conducting soil analysis and investigating high lead concentrations due to prior trap shooting in the area
- Geology installed wells and hydrogeology equipment to study and monitor the groundwater
- Geography is using GPS mapping techniques to assist in land-use decisions
- Education and biology collaborated to bring prairie related conservation lessons to local schools and the wider community
- Computer science is developing a project database
- Public health and outdoor recreation consulted on trail building and usage
- English assisted with grant writing
- Anthropology, archeology, American Indian studies, technical communications, and visual communication design have also offered consultations or completed prairie related projects
It starts with
Healthy soil will retain the water and nutrients prairie plants need to grow
Reestablishing flowering plants (forbs) is critical to species diversity in the prairie ecosystem
Pollinators will return, enabling fertilization and the production of seeds
Insect habitats are formed, which are essential to mammals, birds and reptiles
The Steps to Collect Native Seeds
- Launched project
- Collected initial baseline data
- Established seed nursery
- Performed water filtration testing
- Seeded entire 13-acre test site
- Collecting additional data
- Monitoring site
- Planting proven seed mix
- Broadening biodiversity of seeds
- Expanding community partnerships
- Design trail system
- Install signs, benches and outdoor classrooms
- Plant trees
- Create sustainable site management
A team of EWU biology students and faculty members recently achieved a significant milestone in Eastern’s ongoing Prairie Restoration Project.
Working earlier this fall, the group drill-seeded four different treatments of high-density and low-density mixtures of seeds and forbs to cover the full extent of the project’s 13-acre test area, a patch of former wheat field just west of the EWU soccer facility. The mixes include a biodiverse array of plants that are native to the Northern Palouse prairie. The test area is now completely planted and carefully labeled for accurate evaluation.
The new cultivations also encompass a 1.5-acre plot that was hand planted last winter. That initial planting was intended to cover the entire test site, but heavy rains oversaturated the site’s clay-laden soil, making it impossible to move trucks and other machinery around the site.
Rather than lose a growing season, students and faculty hand-planted a smaller portion of the test plot. Unfortunately, the heavy rain soon yielded to drought, a circumstance that meant the seeding wasn’t as successful as hoped. But the planting did manage to propagate some native grasses – a result that led restoration team members to conclude that, going forward, they could safely assume such grasses would be easier to establish than flowering plants.
In addition, the initial 1.5-acre planting continues to yield educational benefits. Because it can take up to four years for native seeds to germinate and develop sustainable root structures and shoots, students are continually gaining insights from this living laboratory.
Ultimately, restoration-related research will serve as an important tool in helping EWU students, scientists and conservation experts dig deeper into the fascinating complexities of the Palouse Prairie ecosystem. It’s an outcome, project team members say, that will significantly advance our understanding and appreciation of this vital regional landscape.
Pilot Site Next Steps
The Prairie Restoration Project will expand learning opportunities for students and visitors to campus. We envision a space that will inspire outdoor exploration, connections to natural environments and help develop a strong sense of place.
Converting the site from wheat cultivation to native grasslands will create many new opportunities for faculty and student research. The living laboratory will provide new opportunities that mimic more real-world situations and prepare students for careers.
A multi-use trail system will provide access to the restoration site and encourage exploration, recreation and lead visitors to stunning 360-degree views of the region. The community can use the trails to walk, run, mountain bike, cross country ski and observe nature.
We want to cultivate rich and reciprocal relationships. Many of the plants in the ecosystem are culturally significant to Native Americans for food, medicine, art materials and more. The project will provide renewed access and educational opportunities for local tribes and will be the home of the Lucy Covington Initiative.
With proper education, we hope community members will be inspired to plant native plants in their yards to create their own “pocket prairies.” This simple, actionable step allows supporters to create immediate benefits that will continue for generations.
More than 120 plant species will attract and retain more pollinators in the region and supply nutritional seeds for birds and other small animals. The vast root systems will hold soil in place, reducing the risk of erosion, and draw water down deep into the soil to recharge the groundwater supply.
Get Involved in Transforming this Landscape
We can’t do it without you, Eastern’s dedicated supporters. There are many ways to take part, from partnerships to donations. Want to get your hands dirty? We’d love your help. Naming rights and sponsorship opportunities are available as well.
Visit the Prairie Restoration Campaign website to learn more.