For centuries, in the picturesque Scotia Valley of north-east Washington, deer, elk and moose sipped from streams that tumble down wooded hillsides and spill into the Little Spokane River as it bends through the valley floor. Tree swallows and hairy woodpeckers called from tall stands of tamarack, cedar and pine to chickadees and nut hatches flitting in meadows and wetlands below. Fish, beaver and otter wove through the scattered rocks and icy-clear water of the river as it meandered south.
In the latter half of the 20th century, farming and invasive species choked out native plants that had provided a natural water filter for the aquifer and river. Clear-cut logging scarred the land and stole precious habitat from birds and animals as well as shade from the streams and river. Water temperatures rose and water quality deteriorated, sending fish and animals in search of refuge denied by the development encroaching on all sides.
Over the next century and beyond, Whitworth University students will collaborate with professors to re-introduce native plant species to Scotia Valley and restore the wetlands and forests to their natural state. They will track the return of animals, large and small, winged and antlered, as each acre of habitat is recovered. They will monitor water temperatures in the streams and rivers as well as dissolved compounds that are influenced by the surrounding environment. In doing so, they will learn how to conserve and steward the environment.
Restoring the land – as well as humans' understanding of their impact on the land – is the dream of Betty Verbrugge and her late husband, Durand. They created a trust more than a decade ago documenting their intention to donate their beloved 605 Scotia Valley acres to Whitworth upon the death of their son, Gary, who currently lives on the property. Betty and Gary recently established a $1 million endowment for maintenance of the property and for future construction of a small Whitworth field station for environmental studies and research.
"We are deeply thankful for the Verbrugge family's vision and stewardship and for their work to restore the forests on their land, because it reminds us of Christ's ongoing work of redemption in our broken world," says Whitworth Vice President for Academic Affairs Michael Le Roy, '89. "The Verbrugges' gift will enable countless generations of students to learn on the land and from the land."
Students are already learning what the woods have to teach.
Last spring, Jeri Hedlund, a 2008 Whitworth biology graduate, and biology professor Mike Sardinia, '87, helped Gary Verbrugge plant test plots of native plants in the wetlands that front the Little Spokane River. The project will help determine which species are best suited for the wetlands-restoration project Verbrugge has undertaken in collaboration with the National Resources Conservation Service and Pend Oreille County Conservation District. The project also helped Hedlund land a job with the Okanogan County Planning Department enforcing land-use and zoning laws designed to protect natural resources.
Breanna Hartliep, a senior majoring in biology and theology, analyzed water quality and temperature from various locations in the streams, river and a pond on the Verbrugge property. Hartliep's research established baseline levels that will allow future students to evaluate the impact of the wetland and forest-restoration work on water quality.
Hartliep also was in Sardinia's 2008 Jan-Term parasitology class, which ventured twice to the Verbrugge property in the frigid depths of winter to study animal scat, which, in this case, included frozen deer, elk and moose poop. It's not surprising that Sardinia, who's known for his demanding, though jovial, teaching style, saw advantages to students analyzing field samples they gathered themselves vs. nicely packaged samples he could order from a catalogue. What is surprising, perhaps, is that Hartliep so readily agreed with him.
"The fact that they were not pre-ordered samples meant there could be an infinite number of results, which made the testing much more interesting," she says. "Doing on-site and hands-on testing of the parasites was a great learning experience. That was the most fun I've had in a class at Whitworth."
Physics professor Richard Stevens looks forward to moving Whitworth's Celestron 14-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope to the Verbrugge property. He and Verbrugge have scouted several locations that would minimize background-light pollution, a problem associated with the telescope's current home on campus. Stevens says the new location would facilitate a research project aimed at gathering data on poorly understood planets orbiting other stars.
"This is one example where quantity of data really matters, and, many times, telescopes like ours find systems that merit examination by the bigger telescopes," Stevens says. "[The new location] would produce better picture quality from the telescope and would speed picture-taking because we would not have to spend as much time subtracting the background light interference."
Whitworth's growing engineering-physics program also would benefit indirectly from relocating the telescope. Since there's no place to plug in a charger for the batteries that power the telescope, they would need to be charged by some other means. Solar and wind power are both viable options that present interesting engineering challenges for students, Stevens says.
These long-range plans are possible in large part because the Verbrugge family established a conservation easement on the property through the Inland Northwest Land Trust. The easement permanently preserves the property as a single parcel that can never be subdivided and developed commercially, according to Chris DeForest, executive director of the land trust. A special term of the easement allows Whitworth to construct a small field station for environmental study and research on a portion of the property.
|2008 alumna Jeri Hedlund and biology professor Mike Sardinia (above) work with Gary Verbrugge (above left) to plant test plots of native shrubs and trees to help restore wetlands along the Little Spokane River. The river winds past a historic railroad boarding house (above right) on the 605-acre land parcel to be donated to Whitworth for environmental studies through a trust established by the Verbrugge family.
The conservation easement and the future plan to transfer the property to Whitworth accomplish the Verbrugges' goal of permanently protecting land that's been in their family for nearly 50 years, Verbrugge says.
"We want to preserve it in one piece as a refuge for wildlife," he says, "and we want to teach future generations about conservation."
Verbrugge's great uncle Harry Storms first purchased land in Scotia Valley in 1927, after the once-lively town of Scotia had fallen as quiet as the nearby saw mills and Great Northern Railroad line. In 1961, when Verbrugge was nine, he and his parents moved out from Iowa. They purchased land adjacent to his uncle's that included an old railroad boarding house that became the family home he lives in today.
Durand went to work for the U.S. Forest Service while Betty joined the Pend Oreille County Treasurer's Office, eventually serving as county treasurer from 1973 to 1998. Verbrugge remembers preferring the Pacific Northwest woodlands to the Iowa farmlands when he first moved west. But by the time he graduated from Newport High School, he was ready to experience city life.
Verbrugge attended Whitworth for a year-and-a-half before transferring to Pacific Lutheran University to complete his bachelor's degree. He went on to a successful career as a computer forensic specialist with the Social Security Administration before returning to Scotia Valley to care for his ailing mother.
He discovered upon his return that the land where he grew up was also ailing: Nearly a third of the family property had been clear-cut.
"That was a real shock, to come back and see nothing left of what I remember as being beautiful timber," Verbrugge says. "My folks got connected with a retired forester and they felt he knew what he was doing. But it should never have been logged that way."
Verbrugge immediately dedicated himself to reforesting efforts; much of the clear-cut area has already been replanted. His main focus now is to restore the wetlands along the 3,000 feet of the Little Spokane River that winds through the property. The first task is to remove the invasive canary grass that has choked out native plants. Next will be to plant native shrubs and trees that have thrived in the test plots Verbrugge planted with Hedlund and Sardinia last spring.
The hope is that restoring native vegetation will improve the quality and temperature of water flowing into the wetlands and the aquifer that feed the river; the new trees and shrubs will also provide habitat for birds and animals.
This is where Verbrugge, Le Roy and faculty members get excited about the potential for long-term student-
"We can follow the life cycle of plants and of populations of animals over generations in the same environment; this is going to span many groups of students," Sardinia says. "My expectation is that students 20, 30, 40 years from now will be looking at Breanna Hartliep's initial water-quality studies as the baseline comparison for monitoring the impact of environmental changes in the river valley."
Biology professor LeeAnne Chaney says the property's diversity of plant and tree species, elevation and moisture levels offer a bounty of resources for teaching as well as research.
"I am extremely grateful that it has this protected status so we know that most of what is there will remain in more or less the condition it is in now," she says. "I think it would be a real minority of schools like ours that would have access to a plot of land that size."
As Verbrugge and Le Roy imagine the property's potential as an educational and community resource, they have found a source of ideas in IslandWood, a 255-acre outdoor-learning center on Bainbridge Island, just west of Seattle. They traveled to the center last October and came away impressed by its commitment to developing and operating facilities using sustainable principles, to combining teaching and research, and to offering educational programs that benefit the entire community.
"We're only in the beginning stage of discussions about the programs and facilities that eventually will be in place on the Verbrugge property," Le Roy says. "The property hasn't yet transferred to Whitworth's ownership, so any plans in the near term will proceed in close collaboration with the Verbrugge family. What's so exciting is that we share a common vision for restoring and preserving the land, for studying the abundant natural resources it offers, and for teaching future generations of students to be environmental scientists and stewards."
That vision began as a seed when the Verbrugges first established the trust that calls for their land to be transferred to Whitworth. With the creation of the Verbrugge Family Endowment to maintain and preserve the land, the seed has become a hearty young sapling with promise for great future growth. Centuries from now, perhaps, Whitworth students will walk under its boughs and learn the lessons such trees have to teach.
View a narrated photo slideshow of the test-plot planting project undertaken last spring by a Whitworth professor and student with Gary Verbrugge.
Greg Orwig, who grew up playing in the woods, is director of communications at Whitworth.
A single gift can serve many goals
A living trust established by Betty Verbrugge and her late husband, Durand, more than a decade ago, along with a planned gift to Whitworth and a subsequent conservation easement will preserve the Verbrugges' beloved 605 acres in northeast Washington's picturesque Scotia Valley.
The easement and donor agreements call for the property to be permanently set aside in its natural state for Whitworth students and faculty to use for environmental science and research and to prepare future generations of conservationists.
The eventual land transfer and a $1 million endowment established by Betty and her son, Gary, to help maintain the property will also reduce the value of the Verbrugges' estate and offer significant tax savings.
"We'd much rather see Whitworth get the property than pay 50 percent estate taxes," Gary Verbrugge says. "We made the endowment gift to support the maintenance of the property so that it didn't create a long-term liability for Whitworth. The ultimate goal for all of us was to retain the property in one piece and not have it developed."
Joe Dinnison, executive director of The Whitworth Foundation, says that almost all planned gifts achieve goals for both the donors and the university. Discussions are ongoing with Gary Verbrugge on planned gifts to Whitworth's endowment that may offer him further estate-tax benefits, charitable income-tax deductions and a lifetime income stream.
"It's always the right time for people to talk to their financial advisors or to our staff in The Whitworth Foundation about their estate-planning goals," Dinnison says. "Regardless of what's happening in the market, there are planned-giving options that provide consistent income streams and tax benefits to donors and that ultimately support Whitworth's mission."