Students Ecology students Lauren Flynn (winter ’10) and Hadley DeBree (’10) collect a soil sample for analysis.

A Whitman biology professor and his students are engaged in research of native and invasive plant life and other grassland and wildlife issues, an effort enhanced by the college’s establishment of a biological field station located about 30 miles from campus.

The research seeks to understand, in part, human impacts on plant species invasions and changes in wildlife habitat.

Tim Parker, assistant professor of biology, has taken a lead role in developing the field research station. Called the Wallula Gap Biological Station at Whitman's Braden Farm, it is the only academically affiliated research station located in a desert region of the Pacific Northwest. It sits on approximately 1,500 acres of college-owned land, which is host to a variety of native and invasive plant communities vying for dominance.

Students look west Above: Students look west from a hillside at the Wallula Gap Biological Station. Below: A view north to the Columbia River; native bunchgrass and balsamroot in the foreground. View to the north

Non-native cheatgrass has replaced native perennial bunch grasses on more than 10 million acres in the western U.S., and has a significant presence on an additional 30 to 40 million acres. At the new biological station cheatgrass covers hundreds of acres, but native bunchgrasses hold their own over substantial areas.    

“Wallula Gap is an outstanding natural laboratory for students to study the causes and consequences of ecosystem transformation from native to non-native species,” said Parker. “Ecologists are really interested in these questions but so are land managers, ranchers and conservationists.”

Also interested in the research is Mike Denny, a renowned Northwest naturalist and the riparian coordinator for the Walla Walla Conservation District.

“A lot of things are unknown in desert sites in the Northwest — how the system functions, what the human impact is,” Denny said. “Tim and his students will make new discoveries there … I am extremely excited about it,” said Denny, who has great concerns about the imbalances caused by invasive plants and the loss of natural habitat and wildlife. He has the “greatest admiration” for Parker’s scholarship and also thinks that the Whitman station will entice even more of the world’s science-minded college-bound students to attend Whitman.

Parker said he has never lived anywhere that has “this high a dominance by invasive species.” Among them is cheatgrass, high coverage of which can dramatically increase the amount of fire in an area. Its flowers have sharp spikes that can injure mouths of grazing animals, and it’s a “nitrogen hog” that sucks nitrogen out of the soil much more readily than some other species. Also, he said as invasives dominate larger and larger areas of the world, local landscapes become less unique and in many ways less interesting.

Parker also values the “explicit educational” use of this college-owned land. Over the years, Whitman has received thousands of acres of farmland that serve the college as a revenue source. The field station adds an academic component to the objectives for owning the farmland. It is the second such use: A space observatory/telescope sits on college-owned land north of campus.

Parker is a strong advocate of field-oriented education. “In the biology department we’re committed to giving students a broad training,” he said. He explained that biological processes are “hierarchical” and that students can’t fully grasp biology by understanding only one or two levels of the hierarchy. “You can understand how genes work, how molecules work, but that’s not going to tell you how organisms interact … or how nutrients move through a system or how populations grow. …They need to get good experience looking at interactions of organisms in natural settings.”

To create a site where meaningful learning and research could take place, he surveyed the college’s properties and honed in on the college’s 10,000-acre Braden farm in the Columbia River Basin where some acreage has never been farmed mainly because of topographical constraints, specifically steep slopes in the Spring Gulch drainage area.

He and students then initiated a pilot study and established long-term monitoring plots on land that has extensive communities of both invasive grasses and native plants. They are tracking such things as seed dispersal and the effects of soil moisture and temperature on both cheatgress and native bunch grass. This monitoring is becoming more comprehensive and technically advanced. Whitman President George Bridges’ Innovations in Teaching and Learning grant program just awarded $16,000 to Parker for installation of permanent monitoring instruments at Wallula Gap and to fund experiments that students design in ecology class.

Because it often takes many years of data to come up with answers to various ecological questions, the U.S. government has an established network of long-term ecological research sites. Parker and his ecology students also will take the long view, working at the site every year and continuing to build on the previous year’s work, refining hypotheses, developing new ones.

 “I have a totally long-term perspective on this. … I’m hoping 20 years from now I’ll have a pretty good understanding of what’s going on out there.”

Chris Wallace, Whitman College’s Dr. Robert F. Welty associate professor biology, said, “It is exciting to have a colleague at the beginning of their career contributing both new vision for expanding opportunities for student-faculty collaboration and the personal initiative to work so hard to make it a reality.”

Wallace said the field station “is a great example of how teaching of biology is being transformed by melting the distinction between academic exercises and engagement in real science.”  Wallace said Parker had the vision to see the site’s potential, and he had the initiative to complete a pilot study and build new infrastructure for science education.

“He is investing in integrating teaching labs, opportunities for student research and his own scholarship, which is what makes Whitman Whitman,” he said.

– Virginia Grantier