Over the coming years, 170 acres east of Airport Road in Pullman will be transformed into an arboretum, which will include a new bear center, a biodiversity center, a gathering circle, and a series of walking trails and gardens.

The land fits neatly amidst the WSU Organic Farm, USDA research plots, and College of Veterinary Medicine facilities. While the project is still in its infancy, many pieces are falling into place to make it happen.

By mid-July, the first trails were visible, tiny paths of hot pink flags climbing up and around the hills. A grand opening is loosely planned for fall 2011, but that depends on construction, says Rod Sayler, an associate professor in the Department of Natural Resource Sciences.

Sayler has been taking care of the land since August 2009. But plans for an arboretum at WSU date back to the 1980s, he says. “It comes from the innate desire of people to have an arboretum, a natural space, trees and wildlife,” he says.

The project started to take shape a year ago when President Elson S. Floyd designated the land for the project. One of the first candidates for a home there is the WSU bear program, which now sits at the busy corner of Grimes Way and Airport Road.

While many areas of campus have an interest in the project, the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences is the academic home for the arboretum. Dean Dan Bernardo is looking for ways to mitigate costs on the project by relying on student volunteers and relationships with alumni in fields like nursery operations and landscape architecture. “We’re using every avenue we can to get free goods and services,” he says.

Erim Gomez, a master’s student in ecology, is learning the “art of weed management” during his hours at the site. The essence of his work, aside from the mowing and weed-whacking, is making sure the ecosystems on the land are working in the right way.

Gomez got involved with the arboretum through Sayler’s restoration ecology class. Every day, he is learning to identify which plants are invasive and need to go and which are native and need to be nurtured. With pride, he points to the scraggly infant ponderosa pines he helped plant last fall.

At times, the project seems like a series of competing but complementary visions. Robbins cares about animal diets and life in different ecosystems. Landscape architecture professor Philip Waite wants to satisfy a basic human longing for aesthetic outdoor spaces. And everyone wants interconnectedness, a place where different disciplines can flourish.

WSU’s tribal liaison Barbara Aston ’91 helps all the visions come together in a way that respects and honors the original people of the land. She is in charge of incorporating the Native American perspective. For example, she led the change in nomenclature from the “story circle” to a “gathering circle,” a more inclusive name that better fits native culture and customs.

Aston brings a “quiet voice of social consciousness” to the project, says Bobbie Ryder ’87, the senior campus planner and licensed landscape architect leading the master plan. Ryder sees the project as bridging art and science, a nexus of plants, animals, and people.

The project will fill a need for more outdoor space at WSU, says Bernardo. Along with a tourist attraction, the arboretum will be a living laboratory for WSU students and researchers, he adds, especially in disciplines like wildlife ecology and plant sciences. Aston hopes local tribes will be able to use it for traditional dinners and youth education programs.

The arboretum is a big vision. For now, Capital Planning and Development is cutting in the first series of trails and building the gathering circle, reusing materials excavated from the playfields renovations.

Much else hinges on funding. Until then, the ideas and inspirations percolate.