Prairie Restoration Moving Forward

April 25, 2024
Tractor with students loading the seeds for drill seeding.
EWU students helped drill-seed four different treatments of high-density and low-density mixtures of seeds on the pilot site.

Sustainability is taking root as Eastern Washington University moves forward with plans to create a landscape that is climate-friendly.

In a timely nod to Earth Week, several key sustainability efforts are underway as part of the university’s Climate Action Plan.

The Prairie Restoration Project, a multi-year effort to restore 120 acres of university-owned farmland to its original Palouse Prairie state, has moved into its next phase. This hard-earned progress was made possible by multidisciplinary research collaborations and generous gifts from EWU faculty, staff and the larger community, including Becky Brown, Bill Youngs, the Hugh and Jane Ferguson Foundation and many other generous contributors.

“It has been really exciting to see the Prairie Restoration Project develop to this point,” says Erik Budsberg, director of sustainability at EWU.

Students gathered around dirt with clipboards
Geoscience students looked at soil infiltration rates and performed swale tests on the prairie site. Their work established baselines that will be crucial to the success of future plantings.

The next phase will see work this spring and summer to reduce and eliminate noxious weeds on the property, which is located behind Roos football field. In the fall, the entire site will be planted with a mix of native grasses.

After the campus’ landscape masterplan earned the EWU Board of Trustees approval, in December, work is now underway to replace the university’s water-loving lawns, flowers and shrubbery with greenery that is resilient to drier climate conditions.

“What we’ve learned from the Prairie Restoration Project has also informed our decision to develop a climate-resiliency landscape masterplan,” Budsberg says. “We will be converting all of campus landscaping over to the native drought-tolerate plants that are more representative of the regional biodiversity.”

[Another landscaping-friendly project at EWU will involve faculty, staff and students volunteering their time on April 26 to help clean-up the Cheney campus and its gardens to ready for them for spring.]

The Prairie Restoration Project, which began five years ago, was from its start envisioned as a community partnership. A key component of this goal involves EWU teams working closely with the Spokane Tribe of Indians – exchanging knowledge and sharing seeds – in an effort to reestablish connections to a landscape lost during settlement.

The “living laboratory” has become a hub for interdisciplinary collaborations and faculty and student research. This has resulted in ongoing soil testing, the creation of a seed garden, trial plantings on the 15-acre test site and follow-up testing and data analysis.

Teams from biology, geosciences, environmental science, education, visual communication design, English, technical communications and public health, anthropology/archeology and other departments contributed to this effort, Budsberg says.

“Numerous grad students have studied with the Prairie Restoration Project for their master’s thesis, and countless undergraduate students have been able to study prairie restoration, and related aspects — all to help us gain us gain a better understanding of how to proceed to the next phase of the project.”

This next phase will bring visible progress as the entire acreage is drill-seeded with a mix of wild grasses that student researchers determined are resilient enough to form a root system that will become the foundation of the prairie.

Another widespread planting will happen in the fall of 2025, to add forbs, the prairie’s herbaceous flowering plants that include bitterroot and lupine. Over the next few years, after the grasses and flowering plants stabilize, native shrubs and trees will be planted. A trail system will then be etched into the landscape.

Budsberg says one of the project’s many benefits is that some of the grasses and plants propagated in the greenhouse for the prairie will also be used for the relandscaping – helping to reduce costs to the university and create a continuity within the overall landscape.

When it has come to full fruition, the Prairie will provide a place of belonging for students, while boosting biodiversity and providing flourishing plants that magically sequester carbon through their roots.

“The research we’ve been doing has been helping us understand the Prairie Restoration Project as an eco-system resource.”

Finally, in addition to prairie progress, climate-friendly work is also happening indoors, as Spokane’s McKinstry Co. is conducting a campus-wide energy audit.

McKinstry, a dedicated EWU supporter that is internationally recognized for its innovative work on the Catalyst and other zero-carbon, zero-energy buildings, is also putting together a de-carbonization plan. McKinstry’s reports and recommendations will guide decisions on future upgrades and improvements to reduce energy usage, carbon emissions and operating costs over time.

**Fundraising for the Prairie Restoration Project will be ongoing to cover the cost of plants, trees, trails and signage. If you would like to learn how you can make a gift to support the project, visit EWU / Give or email Courtney Susemiehl at csusemie@ewu.edu.