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Growing Knowledge: WSU Teams Up With Umatillas for Native Plant Restoration

August 3, 2008

By Annette Cary, Tri-City Herald, Kennewick, Wash.

Aug. 3–Dozens of species of plants that covered the Mid-Columbia before the landscape gave way to crops and manicured lawns will be grown in a new greenhouse at Washington State University Tri-Cities.

“I view this as a new branch of agriculture,” said Steven Link, WSU extension ecologist and associate scientist in the school of biological sciences.

There’s growing demand for native plants for revegetating large burned areas, restoring smaller areas disturbed by road work and other activities and for landscaping by homeowners who want to nurture wildlife and cut water use.

But it’s a demand that commercial growers are not prepared to meet, in part because so little is known about how to grow native plants.

Currently, restoration of natural lands ravaged by Mid-Columbia’s summer brush fires typically is done with about five native species. But before the fire or other disturbance, at least 25 species would have grown in any location, Link said.

The typical restoration work stabilizes the soil, said Barbara Harper, the program manager of environmental health for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Mission, Ore.

But at the new greenhouse at WSU, the school, working with area tribes, wants to learn more about how to make the natural ecosystem return, said Allan Felsot, professor of entomology and environmental toxicology.

The 1,650-square-foot greenhouse will have space to grow a total of 26,000 tublings of about 100 species. It replaces a small starter greenhouse on the campus that’s a joint project of the Umatillas and WSU.

The new greenhouse will have better heating and cooling, providing a controlled environment and allowing better science, Link said. It also will give more students the opportunity to participate in research and learn about native plant ecology.

While native plants may thrive when undisturbed by human activity in the Mid-Columbia, not much is known about how to get them to grow in greenhouses to produce quantities large enough for use in revegetation projects.

Research will be answering questions ranging from what soil is best for different plants to how to propagate the plants for seeds to how the plants interact with other native species. In some cases it will be information needed to make commercial propagation of plants viable.

The first phase of the project has been building the greenhouse and equipping it, Felsot said. Then WSU, in cooperation with the Umatillas, will work with students to study the plants. Growing them will be demonstrated in small trials in the field, he said.

The first few plants have been moved into the greenhouse to prepare for a public dedication Tuesday. They include silky lupine that grows on the Hanford Reach National Monument’s Arid Land Ecology Reserve; spiny flame flower, a tiny succulent with bright red leaves found on the top of Rattlesnake Mountain, and common dogbane used by Native Americans for fiber.

Money for the project comes from an Environmental Protection Agency fine over past problems at the Hanford nuclear reservation’s landfill for low-level radioactive waste. DOE and its contractor Washington Closure Hanford proposed paying off a portion of the fine in community projects, with the contractor bearing the cost.

The greenhouse cost $245,000 to build and the total cost of the project, including equipment, propagation of plants and monitoring 10 acres of plantings will be about $494,000, according to WSU.

“The ability to revegetate Hanford with a variety of native plants and seeds is one of the huge benefits of this project,” said Dave Brockman, manager of the DOE Hanford Richland Operations Office, in a statement. “Whether it’s cleaning up waste sites or tearing down contaminated buildings, revegetation has become a major part of our efforts.”

EPA agreed to let some of the money from the fine be used for the greenhouse because the project meets federal requirements to provide tangible benefits to the environment.

“It will benefit the local ecology for years to come,” said Dave Einan, project manager for EPA’s Hanford office, in a statement.

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