Au Sable begins to restore Smith Prairie property
July 3, 2008 · Updated 12:42 PM
"A year after he handed over a check for $700,000 to purchase 175 acres of Central Whidbey prairie land, Au Sable Institute Director Calvin DeWitt is still excited about the deal. We're very happy, he said. And just overwhelmed with the support we've gotten from the community. It's gone way beyond our expectations.These days, DeWitt is looking to the future. Armed with a $200,000 grant for building restoration, he walks the land, pointing out things that need to be done and envisioning what will someday be a renowned environmental learning center. The Michigan-based Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies was a bit of an unknown when the name first surfaced last summer as a potential buyer for the Whidbey Island Game Farm on Smith Prairie, just south of Coupeville.The Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife had operated the game farm since the late 1940s, but was ordered by the Legislature to sell it in 1998 in order to make up the department's $17 million budget shortfall. Neighbors and environmentalists worried that rare native prairie plants and wildlife in the area would be sacrificed to new housing. Their arguments convinced lawmakers to try to sell the property to a non-profit conservation group. That's when Au Sable entered the picture.The graduate school, which operates five campuses around the world, describes itself as a Christian-based institution of higher education in environmental stewardship. Students are trained as naturalists, environmental analysts, land- and water-resource analysts. The Smith Prairie site is now known as Au Sable-Pacific Rim.Au Sable's interest in the game farm property is for the study and restoration of the prairie environment that existed there for thousands of years. It's an environment that has steadily disappeared since Europeans first settled the area, and only three acres of native prairie remains. The rest, DeWitt believes, is hiding under invading, non-native plants that have taken over.It will take a lot to bring it back, said DeWitt last week as he sat in the living room of one of the two government-built houses on the site. There may be years of study and restoration projects before anyone can claim success. But looking long-term, DeWitt remains positive.The first step will be to extend the current remnant from three to five acres, he said. Eventually I expect we'll get 100 to 120 acres of prairie.Students have already been out on the site documenting what's there and studying natural processes. DeWitt said the prairie provides a unique opportunity for them.Most college students learn mainly from a book, or from field trips that take them from one site to another and then to another. They're not able to really study a site, he said. Here we're able to visit, take actions, come back, study the results - we can collect data for 10, 50, 100 years. We are essentially looking ahead a century.Dewitt said the early prairie work will be deliberately slow, using only small portions of the land to experiment with restoration procedures such as mowing and possibly burning the invasive overgrowth. He said the lives of other plants and animals, such as certain species of butterflies, may be interconnected with the lives of the existing vegetation.If you do something all at once, you might destroy that, said DeWitt.But work on restoring the game farm buildings will go a bit quicker. Within a month Au Sable will begin spending a $200,000 grant from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust, repairing, converting and cleaning up a barn, shop, grainery, incubator lab, garage, two residences and more than 50 small pheasant cabins that used to house game birds.DeWitt has been working with designers and the county to make all the buildings usable for classrooms, laboratories, plant propagation areas and meeting rooms.The current buildings have been neglected for the past few years but were well built and worthy of restoration, said DeWitt. In August, two Au Sable staff members will move onto the site and give the institute a year-round Whidbey presence.DeWitt plans to nominate two local residents to serve on the Au Sable board of directors and also wants to start a local citizens advisory committee. In addition to the $700,000 purchase price, Au Sable has already spent an additional $45,000 of its own money on property improvements since last summer. The institute is also kicking off a $5 million fund-raising campaign for the Pacific Rim campus. Roughly $2 million is planned for construction and renovation and $3 million will be set aside as an endowment that will allow the campus to be a self-sustaining operation.---------------------Prairie programGet a taste of the Au Sable Institute's environmental education program during a special prairie restoration course open to the community. The week-long course will run from Aug. 3 to 10 at the Au Sable-Pacific Rim campus at Smith Prairie. It will include presentations by noted speakers, discussions, field trips and work parties. Among the speakers will be restoration ecologist Peter Dunwiddie of the Nature Conservancy; colleague Pat Dunn, who is an expert on the prairies of South Puget Sound; University of Washington researcher Kern Ewing; wildlife biologist Matt Klope; and Rob Harbour of the Ebey's Landing National Historical Reserve. Other guest speakers were still being confirmed at press time.The course will focus on plant identification as well as the ecology and ethics of restoration.Tuition for the full-week course is $120, but students may also sign up on a pro-rated basis for single classes or a partial course. Scholarship funds are available. Those interested in scholarships or more information should call 678-0815."