Two stories unfold inside the community learning center that opened this week over a vast expanse in the shadow of Mica Peak.
The former can be seen through dozens of south-facing floor-to-ceiling glass walls as scores of migrating birds flutter over the water that flows naturally into a field that once contained acres of hay.
The second lives on in the memories of Brian Morrison and his sister, Shari Morrison Eddie, descendants of a family that has been farming the land for over a century, much of it under the direction of Doris Morrison.
“We always had a big hay shed, and we used to fill it every year with Timothy hay,” said Brian Morrison. “It was great work, getting the hay bales in there and topping this thing off. Every day, I’d look down, and my grandmother would cheer me on.”
Representatives of the Morrison family, Spokane County, the Central Valley School District and others gathered Wednesday for a festive ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Doris Morrison Education Center in Saltis Flats. The building, more than a decade old, sits in the midst of hundreds of acres of protected wetland and shrub steppe on the edges of a creeping residential development.
While speakers inside chatted about the new school term, intended to give school-age children and adults alike a chance for hands-on learning, American voles, along with pigeons and several other ducks, swooped down on the gushing waters of the wetlands outside. The building’s educational potential was important to the Morrison family, including Bud Morrison, the father of Brian and Shari who was unable to attend on Wednesday, because Doris Morrison was a teacher who had educated at the University of Washington before dedicating herself to the farm, according to Morrison Eddy. .
“She became a wonderful historian,” Morrison Eddy said of her grandmother, who died in 2007 at the age of 103. Signs inside the center, which will be open to the public as well as upon request by local school districts, tell Morrison’s story. The pictures were kept by the lady mother in 14 photo albums. Morrison Eddy said many of those photos had “a whole story written on the back”.
Visitors can also learn about the schoolhouses at Saltis Flats, the oldest of which was built in 1895. Doris Morrison was born eight years later, and Spokane County Commissioner Mary Cooney said the new center is just as much a celebration of the environment as Morrison herself, who bucked trends and kept the farm Continuing once she married into the family after teaching in a one-room school in Montana for several years.
“I went to the University of Washington in the 1920s when women weren’t going to college,” Connie said. “It’s amazing, I say, that a real pioneer woman would go to college.”
Students who visit will be able to learn about not only the birds, moose, and other animals that frequent the habitat year-round, but also the seasonal patterns that populate the drylands each spring. The project was first mooted in 2008 when Bud Morrison was approached by county officials about purchasing land that his grandfather had drained into farmland in the 1890s. The idea was to recreate the wetlands as a means of allowing spring runoff from the mountains to seep back into the aquifer below.
In the intervening years, Spokane County has used a range of methods—including the taxpayer-backed Conservation Futures program—to grow protected grassland areas, meadows, canyons, and shrub steppes. The Saltese Uplands Conservation Area, just across Henry Road from the new Doris Morrison Education Center, has become a haven for birders and wildlife watchers hoping to catch a glimpse of migrating flocks and birds of prey.
The transformation happened quickly, said Dave Schwab, executive director of the Inland Northwest Land Conservancy.
“It was only two years ago, and it was all dry,” Schwab said. Now, it has become “a destination, in astonishing numbers,” for migratory birds, many species of which can be identified using signage and photography installed along the windows in the building with the help of Ducks Unlimited.
The windows are also fitted with fishing line, parachute ropes, and window decorations intended to prevent birds from flying into the glass. Members of the local chapter of the Audubon Society helped install safety measures.
The 3,000-square-foot center was designed by Spokane-based ALSC Architects, which was founded by Expo ’74 executive architect Tom Adkinson. He was the prime contractor for Leonie and Cable, builders of the Pence Union Building at Eastern Washington University, the Daley Public Library and the Hive multi-purpose building for the Spokane Public Libraries in the Middle East neighborhood.
It’s important for the building to have utility and to show a commitment to the environment, said Troy Bishop, ALSC’s director of design and principal. The building works with solar cells on its roof.
“This is an educational shell,” Bishop said. “And in that envelope of learning, we can expose children and sponsors who might not otherwise be able to get out and have the same access as everyone else, to have this invitation to come here and learn and experience and keep coming back.”
John Parker, superintendent of the Central Valley School District, said discussions are under way to bring middle and elementary school classes to the center for field trips.
“We can’t wait to start preparing some of these lessons and get ready to go,” he said.
The county received grants totaling about $1.5 million from the Washington Department of Commerce in August to support the project. The project was also funded by private donations and capital funds from the governorate for water reclamation projects. Cooney said the Central Valley School District donated two acres of its property to the project.
Both of Doris Morrison’s grandchildren said they were thrilled to have completed the project and knew she would be proud of the children’s learning opportunity. She has cared for the land and the people who have lived there throughout her 103 years of life.
Brian Morrison told one last story that showed how much Doris Morrison cares. When he drove all night delivering hay in Ellensburg and back, he would often arrive home well after midnight. His grandmother lived in her late 90s and left the lighted porch while the rig retreated to the farm.
“Every time, that beacon light, that porch light on that old house, it would go off, click, click,” said Brian Morrison, clicking his tongue to indicate the blinking light. “Two in the morning, three in the morning, every time.
“She was waiting for me.”
If you go, the Doris Morrison Education Center is open on Saturdays for Earth Day from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The center is located at 1330 S. Henry Road, in Greenacres. Visitors will be able to take free guided birding walks every 30 minutes from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. with members of the Audubon Society; Subscriptions are required online and can be found on the Spokane County Learning Center website. The West Valley Outdoor Education Center will present live Birds of Prey performances at 11 a.m., noon, and 1 p.m. The Spokane County Library District will be holding story-time events at 10:15 a.m., 11:15 a.m., 12:15 p.m., and 1:15 p.m. Environmental groups will have booths to learn about wildlife, conservation efforts, and water safety.