By Kip Hill
SPOKANE, Wash. -- Two stories unfolded inside a community learning center opening this week on the expanse in the shadow of Mica Peak.
The first can be seen through a dozen floor-to-ceiling glass walls facing south as dozens of migratory birds flit off the water that naturally drains into a field that once held acres of hay.
The second lives in the memories of Bryan Morrison and his sister, Shari Morrison-Ide, the descendants of a family that farmed the land for more than a century, most of it under the watchful eye of Doris Morrison.
“We always had the big hay shed, and we’d fill that every year with timothy hay,” Bryan Morrison said. “It was quite a job, getting the hay bales up there and topping that thing off. Every day, I’d look down, and there would be my grandma, cheering me on.”
Representatives of the Morrison family, Spokane County, the Central Valley School District and more gathered Wednesday for a ceremonial ribbon-cutting for the Doris Morrison Learning Center at Saltese Flats. The building, more than a decade in the making, sits in the middle of hundreds of acres of protected wetlands and shrub steppe on the edges of encroaching residential development.
As speakers inside talked about the new classroom, intended to give school-age children and adults alike an opportunity for hands-on learning, American coots, along with wigeons and many other ducks swooped and landed on the rippling waters of the wetland outside. The educational potential of the building was important to the Morrisons, including Bud Morrison, father of Bryan and Shari who was unable to attend Wednesday, because Doris Morrison was a University of Washington-educated teacher before devoting herself to the farm, Morrison-Ide said.
“She became an incredible historian,” Morrison-Ide said of her grandmother, who died in 2007 at age 103. Signs inside the center, which will be open to the public as well as in demand by local school districts, tell Morrison’s story along with photos the matriarch kept in 14 photo albums. Many of those photos had “a whole story written on the back,” Morrison-Ide said.
Visitors can also learn about schoolhouses on the Saltese Flats, the oldest of which was built in 1895. Doris Morrison was born eight years later, and Spokane County Commissioner Mary Kuney said the new center is as much a celebration of the environment as Morrison herself, who bucked trends and kept the ranch going once she’d married into the family after teaching at a one-room schoolhouse in Montana for several years.
“She went to the University of Washington back in 1920 when women were not going to college,” Kuney said. “It’s pretty amazing for, I would say, a real pioneer woman to go to college.”
Students who visit will be able to learn not just about the birds, moose and other animals that frequent the habitat throughout the year, but also the seasonal patterns that fill the drylands each spring. The project was first floated in 2008 when county officials approached Bud Morrison about buying the land his grandfather had drained and turned into farmland in the 1890s. The idea was to re-establish the wetlands as a way to allow spring runoff from the mountains to percolate back into the aquifer below.
In the intervening years, Spokane County has used a combination of methods – including its taxpayer-supported Conservation Futures program – to grow the areas of protected grassland, prairies, canyons and shrub steppe. The Saltese Uplands Conservation Area, just across Henry Road from the new Doris Morrison Learning Center, also has become a haven for birders and wildlife-watchers hoping to glimpse migratory flocks and raptors.
The transformation has occurred rapidly, said Dave Schaub, executive director of the Inland Northwest Land Conservancy.
“It was just a couple of years ago, this was all dry,” said Schaub. Now, it’s become “a destination, in astounding numbers,” for migratory fowl, many species of which can be identified using signs and photography that has been installed along the windows in the building with help from Ducks Unlimited.
The windows also are outfitted with fishing lines, parachute cords and window adornments that are intended to prevent birds from flying into the glass. Members of the local chapter of the Audubon Society helped install the safety measures.
The 3,000-square-foot center was designed by Spokane-based ALSC Architects, which was founded by Tom Adkinson, executive architect for Expo ’ 74. The lead contractor was Leone & Keeble, builders of the Eastern Washington University Pence Union Building, the Coeur d’Alene Public Library and the Hive multipurpose building for Spokane Public Libraries in the East Central neighborhood.
Troy Bishop, director of design and principal at ALSC, said it was important for the building to have utility and to demonstrate a commitment to the environment. The building is powered by solar cells on its roof.
“This is a learning shell,” Bishop said. “And in that learning shell, we can expose children and patrons that may not otherwise get to go outside and have the same access that everyone else has, to have that invitation to come here and learn and experiment, and keep coming back.”
John Parker, superintendent of the Central Valley School District, said discussions are underway to bring middle and elementary school classes to the center for field trips.
“We just cannot wait to start getting some of those lessons created and 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 also was funded with private donations and capital funds from the county for water reclamation projects. The Central Valley School District donated two acres of its property for the project, Kuney said.
Both of Doris Morrison’s grandchildren said they were thrilled with the project’s completion and knew she would be proud of the opportunity for children to learn. She cared for the land, and the people who lived there, for her entire 103 years of life.
Bryan Morrison told one last story that showed how much Doris Morrison cared. When he drove through the night to deliver hay in Ellensburg and return, he would often arrive home well after midnight. His grandmother lived into her late 90s in her own home and left the porch light on as his rig pulled back into the ranch.
“Every single time, that beacon light, that porch light on that old house, would go, click, click,” Bryan Morrison said, clicking his tongue to indicate the flickering light. “Two in the morning, three in the morning, every single time.
“She was waiting up for me.”
If you go The Doris Morrison Learning Center will be open Saturday for a celebration of 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 bird walks every 30 minutes from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. with members of the Audubon Society; sign-ups are required online and can be found at the Spokane County website for the learning center. The West Valley Outdoor Learning Center will present live raptor shows at 11 a.m., noon and 1 p.m. The Spokane County Library District will hold 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.