A Living

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.

Today almost nothing of the original Palouse prairie remains.
The project will provide a unique educational and recreational space, one that connects visitors to a long-lost landscape.
Sagebrush Mariposa Lily or Calochortus Macrocarpus, a native flower from which EWU is collecting seeds.
Satellite map of project area
Campus border in red. Prairie border in blue.
Aerial view of campus and the Prairie Restoration Project area.

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.

Campus Partnerships

Successful Restoration Is a Multidisciplinary Collaboration


  • 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
Development over the last 150 years has eliminated most of the Palouse prairie.
The extent of prairie “remnant” patches is less than one percent.
We’re dedicating a third of our campus land and resources to restoring this endangered ecosystem.
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It starts with

The unique and diverse soil communities that sustained the original prairie have long been depleted. The change has had a profound effect on what plants will thrive there.
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Healthy soil will retain the water and nutrients prairie plants need to grow

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Reestablishing flowering plants (forbs) is critical to species diversity in the prairie ecosystem

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Pollinators will return, enabling fertilization and the production of seeds

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Insect habitats are formed, which are essential to mammals, birds and reptiles

In the greenhouse, biochar is measured and then added to a soil mixture to boost carbon content.
EWU partnered with Ag Energy of Spokane to apply a product called biochar to the restoration site to boost soil properties. Biochar is created by burning plant matter at a high temperature and in an oxygen-free environment. The dense, high-carbon mixture boosts the carbon content in the soil and retains water and other nutrients, improving soil structure and enhancing plant productivity.
This unique public-private partnership will benefit Eastern Washington University and Ag Energy. Eastern faculty and students will study plant production in pilot plots with and without biochar. Ag Energy will also use that data for their own research and marketing.
Project lead Erik Budsberg collects seeds for cleaning and storing.
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If we want to have a restoration that represents the biological diversity of a native prairie, we need to do a lot of creating and finding of plant materials.
idaho fescue in the wild
Idaho Fescue
Arrowleaf Balsamroot in the wild
Arrowleaf Balsamroot
purple camas in a green field
bluebunch wheatgrass being inspected in the wild
Bluebunch Wheatgrass
Most of our region’s remaining “remnant” prairie can be found in the southern Palouse. However, the northern Palouse, home to the EWU campus, is a unique ecosystem with different soil composition, weather and native plants. Therefore, researchers set their sights on collecting seeds within a 20-mile radius of campus.
Not a lot of research has been done on northern prairie ecosystems, making Eastern’s restoration project particularly vital. The northern prairies border similar ecosystems, such as the channeled scablands and ponderosa-pine woodlands. EWU research will better define the overlaps.
Eastern students and faculty collect seeds from native plants around 20 miles from campus, then clean and store them for planting.

The Steps to Collect Native Seeds

Faculty and student teams regularly track when plants flower and seeds ripen
Seeds are carefully collected and brought back to the EWU greenhouse and dried
The seeds are cleaned by hand—a long and tedious process without cleaning equipment
Seeds are stored in the refrigerator and will be good for up to 10 years
“One of the most fascinating things I’ve learned about seeds is that the same plant growing here and in the mountains on the Washington-Idaho border have different traits. So, if you took the seeds from the plant that grows in the mountains and put them here where it’s a little drier and hotter—even though they’re the same plant—they might not perform as well because they haven’t grown up in the same sort of environment.” Sarah Hill ’21, Biology Graduate Student
In Oct. 2021, 11.5 acres were planted on the pilot site.
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The restoration work is the backbone of the project. Establishing and researching the pilot site will support student and faculty research, and inform how to proceed with completing the entire 120 acres.
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Phase 1: Completed
  • Launched project
  • Collected initial baseline data
  • Established seed nursery
  • Performed water filtration testing
  • Seeded entire 13-acre test site
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Phase 2: Ongoing
  • Collecting additional data
  • Monitoring site
  • Planting proven seed mix
  • Broadening biodiversity of seeds
  • Expanding community partnerships
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Phase 3: Goal
  • Design trail system
  • Install signs, benches and outdoor classrooms
  • Plant trees
  • Create sustainable site management
students taking notes and discussing at the prairie site on a warm day
Geoscience students looking at soil infiltration rates and performing swale tests on the prairie site. The work established baselines that will be crucial to the success of future plantings.

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

Monitor Plots
Ongoing monitoring and evaluation of test plots
Build Trails
Building an observation trail system that won’t disturb the plantings
Check Results
Identifying which mix of grasses and forbs produce the best results
Seeds from 20 native species were drilled into a series of experimental plots.
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This major sustainability initiative is larger than just 120 acres. It will impact the community for years, preserving natural land, increasing biodiversity and providing educational exploration.
mockup of someone in front of educational plaque in a restored prairie on a bright day


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.

presentation in a group setting


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.

cross country skiers on the prairie


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.

gathering at a drumming circle outdoors on the prairie


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.

hand inspecting plant starters


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.

bee on white flower pods


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.

native prairie flowers on a spring day
“Prairie cannot be replaced. Were we to allow the last remnant to be destroyed, we would lose forever the unique inheritance of millennia.”
— Project advisor Kurt Merg

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.

Support the Prairie Restoration Project

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