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PRI History

Who We Are

HISTORY – BEFORE PRI

In 1997, Michigan’s Au Sable Institute (ASI) for Environmental Studies, led by Dr. Cal DeWitt, established their second campus, the Pacific Rim Campus located at Seattle Pacific University’s Camp Casey. Since 1980, ASI has offered, at their Michigan and Pacific Rim campuses, upper-level courses for students from more than 50 affiliated North American Christan colleges and universities.

When Rob Harbor, Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve Executive Director, learned that Au Sable was looking for property to purchase for their new campus, he notified Dr. Cal DeWitt that the 175-acre Washington State Game Farm south of Coupeville was being listed for sale. When ASI expressed strong interest in the game farm, a bill was passed by the Washington State Legislature that the game farm property could only be sold to a non-profit organization for the price that Washington Fish and Game was over-budget - $700,000. The sale to ASI was finalized 18 June 1999. 

The remodeling of the game farm buildings employed energy efficient, sustainable technology designed by Cal DeWitt. The adaptive reuse design was accepted by Ebey’s Landing National Historic Reserve Trust Board to maintain the outward appearance of the buildings and to maximize their internal usefulness. Imagine converting a barn with a dirt floor into offices and classrooms with bathrooms and kitchen, no less! The construction was supervised by Mr. Bob Barr of ASI who lived onsite for a year. The Pacific Rim program moved to the newly restored buildings in 2001. 

Cal DeWitt and the Island County Planning Department agreed to a master site plan for the 175-acres and established a new zoning category, the Special Review District (SRD). This greatly limited the development potential - the land having been surveyed earlier for subdivision and houses. Greenbank Farm is the only other SRD in Island County. The master site plan also carried the signature of Seattle’s City Planner.

Prior to the purchase of the Game Farm property by Au Sable, the largest native prairie remnant remaining on Whidbey Island (about 4.5-acre) was discovered in 1997 on the new campus site by the leaders of Whidbey Environmental Action Network (WEAN), Marianne Edain and Steve Erickson. This was a pivotal moment launching efforts in prairie restoration and research. 

Sheilagh Byler, a former graduate student of Cal DeWitt was hired as the first Director of the Pacific Rim campus and remained in that capacity until Robert Pelant replaced her as Program Director in 2005. Robert started community educational opportunities such as lectures, guided tours of the prairie restoration work, guided bird walks, building bluebird nest boxes in a Coupeville grade school classroom along with their installation at PRI and other outreach programs. Mary Owens, the office manager, played a major role in these early years by implementing strong organizational procedures.

Initially restoration and research focused heavily on the Golden Paintbrush which was formally listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act in 1997. Only ten small populations remained, eight in Washington and two in British Columbia. The only known populations of the Golden Paintbrush on Whidbey Island were a few small ones on the west bluffs. In 2002, the first out-plantings of Golden Paintbrush plants in the north Puget Sound area happened on the PRI native prairie remnant. More out plantings followed: 100 plants in 2006, 991 plugs in 2007, 1030 plus in 2010. Those small beginnings resulted in recent annual population counts on site of over 40,000 plants!

Other recovery efforts included expanding the footprint of the original prairie remnant and identifying.

60 species of native prairie plants. Because the oak-savannah ecosystem is also a highly endangered ecosystem in the Pacific Northwest, out-planting of small oak trees began just south of the north forest and in the SW area of the open grassland.

The downturn of the economy in 2008 forced ASI to consider selling both their campuses. Employees at the Pacific Rim Campus received a letter of termination in 2008. A strong coalition of instructors who had taught at both ASI campuses as well as affiliated colleges and student alumni protested. Locally, a proposal for a separate entity, initially named Pacific Rim Stewards, compiled by Robert Pelant, Randy Van Dragt, and Joe Sheldon was presented to the ASI board by Robert Pelant. After the first financial plan proposal was denied, a subsequent plan was accepted including approval that a new 501(c)(3) organization be formed to take over the management of the ASI’s Pacific Rim Campus until the new organization could raise sufficient funds to purchase the property. The ASI board reversed their decision to sell the Michigan campus which has grown and continues today as a partner organization with PRI.

PACIFIC RIM INSTITUTE TAKES OVER THE CAMPUS

A new 501(c)(3) named the Pacific Rim Institute (PRI) for Environmental Stewardship was formed in 2009. With the approval of ASI’s board, the management of the campus and program was given to the new non-profit also allowing PRI time to raise sufficient funds to complete the land purchase from ASI. This effort was led jointly by Dr. Robert Pelant, founding CEO, and the founding board comprised of Dr.

Randy Van Dragt, Chair, Dr. Joseph Sheldon, Vice Chair, Dr. Kathleen Braden, Secretary, Mr. Jim Theel, Treasurer, Dr, Hessel (Bud) Bouma, Mr., Rick Baugh, and Representative Norma Smith. ASI worked cooperatively with PRI for the next several years until the final purchase of the property was completed in 2015. A Memorandum of Understanding between ASI and PRI assured continuation of up to six college classes on the PRI campus until 2043. 

The prairie restoration work continued with a major focus on the golden paintbrush. Significant federal grants through the USFWS and USDA NRCS were obtained to facilitate much of the work. (Details are available on this website under the heading What We Do.) By 2023, the PRI campus population of golden paintbrush exceeded 40,000 plants and was a major factor in its removal from the Endangered Species List the same year. Current prairie restoration work has expanded to an additional 20 acres. Off-campus restoration sites include the Navy base, Protection Island, San Juan islands, and Ebey’s overlook near Sunnyside Cemetery.

Research led by Dr Peter Dinwiddie, Dr. Eric Delvin, and Dr. Jon Bakker at PRI have resulted in scientific publications. The basic methodological groundwork for prairie restoration, including golden paintbrush restoration in Washington, was led by Dr. Peter Dinwiddie of the University of Washington who directed the doctoral research work of Eric Delvin.  One of Delvin’s three restoration sites was on the PRI campus.  Dr. Jon Bakker, now at the University of Washington’s Department of Forestry, was one of the early faculty members teaching for Au Sable Institute on the Pacific Rim campus. Jon has directed the site study at PRI, part of the Nutrient Network (NutNet), a global study of the nutrient flow through more than 130 grassland sites worldwide. The goal is to understand the relationship between productivity and diversity.  The results, including data gathered at PRI, have been published in major research articles. 

PRI continues to serve as a role model in sustainable living with the addition of an expansive solar array, a regional seismic (earthquake) detection site, a University of Washington weather station, and workshops for the local community on fruit tree grafting and pruning, bird protection and other subjects. The educational program includes community lectures, local school interactions, and continued offering of courses for Au Sable Institute during the summer. Current programs continue to evolve with new subjects and activities regularly added. 

Robert Pelant’s efforts to connect with the local tribes were significant as they returned to this piece of historic land and garden, an important part of their roots, to celebrate their cultural history with their youth. That partnership continues to expand. 

As a non-profit organization, PRI’s income stream depends on rental of its property, restoration grants and contracts, seed and plant sales, and donations from individuals, churches, corporations, etc. Volunteers significantly improve PRI’s operational capacity and are always welcome!

Dr. Robert Pelant retired at the end of 2023. The new Executive Director, Dr Forrest Inslee will join the PRI team on 15 April 2024 where he will lead the current effort to protect the 175-acres with a conservation easement and continue the ongoing work to maintain and expand programs which enhance the lives of those living on Whidbey Island and beyond. PRI’s mission in education, sustainable living, and restoration-research continues. 

Thank you for reading PRI’s history and for supporting the vital on-site work!

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