FORT HALL — Three greenhouses that remained idle for years and had virtually no functional equipment are now helping the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes preserve culturally significant native plants.
The greenhouses, located on the grounds of Shoshone-Bannock Junior-Senior High School, were overhauled last fall and now represent one of the region's most modern facilities for plant propagation.
The tribes also intend to grow native plants on contract for entities such as the federal Bureau of Land Management, which needs a diversity of seedlings to re-vegetate scorched earth following wildfires. Students from the school will likely assist in growing and planting the seedlings.
On Tuesday morning, the tribes hosted an open house to show off the renovated facilities and the work that's been taking place within them since spring.
Tribal Council Chairman Ladd Edmo believes his community's school children will learn about their heritage when they participate in raising riparian plants that were crucial to their ancestors' survival.
"Our tribe depended on the riparian area. I can see that now we are trying to preserve and protect and bring it back," Edmo said. "We're teaching the young ones and everyone else that is interested in this."
The BLM contributed financially toward the roughly $135,000 greenhouse renovation project, completed by Living Earth, of Twin Falls. Steven Paulsen, CEO of the contractor, said the framing was intact, and his workers added lighting, fans, modern heating systems, irrigation systems and technology to inject fertilizer and soil amendments through irrigation. Furthermore, his staff restored cooling walls to working order.
"There's really nothing we didn't upgrade and improve," Paulsen said.
Paulsen said the greenhouses have the capacity to produce up to 3 million plants per year, ranging from riparian to high desert species.
"There are facilities in the State of Idaho to exceed this one, but in this area, this is far and away one of the better facilities around," Paulsen said.
The greenhouse is now raising culturally significant plants for use in landscaping outside of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribal Museum. Other riparian plants raised in the facility will re-vegetate a stream bank near the museum, as well as the wetland at the Fort Hall Bottoms of the Snake River.
Members of the tribal Language Cultural Preservation Department have offered guidance to the greenhouse staff.
"They've been advising us on what culturally significant plants they would like to help and keep going," said Hunter Osborne, Tribal Fish and Wildlife deputy director and resident fisheries coordinator. "It's a struggle day to day to protect these plants. They are very sensitive."
For example, the camas bulb was once a dietary stable among the Shoshone and Bannock tribes. Historically, they valued bitterroot for its medicinal qualities. The roots of Great Basin wildrye made good hair brushes, and the grass blades were important for weaving. Choke cherries provided an important source of fruit.
Louise Dixey, cultural resource director with the Language Cultural Preservation Department, called the efforts in the greenhouse a "really good start."
"Our focus has been to teach our young people and get the community involved in learning about our plants and ... our traditional foods," Dixey said.
She'd also like for the greenhouse to focus on establishing local stands of pinion pines to provide nuts. She said tribal members have to travel to City of Rocks near Albion to access the closest existing pinion pine stand.
One of the greenhouses has a table with hundreds of sage brush seedlings, raised as a trial crop to show BLM officials. Susan Filkins, with the BLM's native plants program, said the tribes have a history of partnering with her agency. They raised bitterbrush for the BLM three years ago and sagebrush for the agency about eight years ago.
Fitkins anticipates BLM offices will partner with the Fort Hall program on many future contracts. She said the plants raised for their cultural significance should help the BLM "add biodiversity to the rangelands. Because of the huge fires, sometimes they can turn into a monoculture."