Over the years it has been the home to pigs, goats, rabbits, geese, ducks, chickens, and even a few students. Since 1972 there has always been a place on the south side of campus devoted to student initiated environmental programs…it is called the Outback.
Dr. Gary Bornzin, long-time faculty advisor to the Outback and historian of its tenure. "I think it is just fantastic, all the achievements they've made through student led initiatives."
Dr. Bornzin explained that back in the 70's, the university was just piling debris up on the 5-acre site that would later become the Outback. However, an initial group of students knew they could do something more productive with the space, add more value to the land and create a sustainable eco-friendly environment. They could grow their own food and live in the two historical log cabins built on the site in the 1920s by June and Farrar Burn (unfortunately, the university had to curtail the cabin residency in the 1990s because of liability concerns).
With these humble beginnings, and a vision for the future, the Outback (a site now dedicated to teaching, developing and implementing sustainable growing and land use methods) has gone through a variety of changes and levels of productivity over its history. But recent years have seen prosperity, and in fact, last year the farm was so productive that even after the Outback community partook of its bounty, they were still able to donate a couple hundred pounds of produce to local food banks.
The Outback has also not forgotten its affiliation to the university, and with it roots in education; "I use the Outback as an outdoor field lab for many of my classes," explains Dr. John Tuxill, who teaches restoration ecology through Fairhaven. "For the past two years I've had a team involved in restoring the vegetation along the stream that runs through the property, trying to make the wetland function more efficiently and reverse the damage from the construction that happened almost 40 years ago. Our main restoration goal is to slow down the flow of water through the Outback stream so that the vegetation has more time to absorb nitrogen, phosphate, and other nutrients from the water."
In the 1990s, the Outback acquired its "official" name, the Outback Outdoor Experiential Learning Site (OELS), and was honored by recognition and endorsement from the University Administration, which offered some protection against the recurring threat of development. It climbed yet another step in 2006 when it was incorporated as an official Associated Students (AS) Program. With these new honors came something else the Outback desperately needed: a paid coordinator position. Now with dedicated leadership, building on the work of previous generations of volunteers, and with the wholehearted support of Dean Gilman who spearheaded additional funding for the site, the Outback continues to share its wonders with the next generation of Western students.
The new Outback Greenhouse seedlings
Leading this drive is Matia Jones, a student and veteran of the cold days and muddy conditions that are often offered up by the Northwest winter. "My role as the Outback Coordinator," states Jones, "is to make it more accessible not just for Fairhaven students, but for everyone across campus. Having a person who is paid to dedicate their time to improving the area, to dealing with facilities and the university, it makes it way more organized. We've been able to get a lot of improvements done over the past few years."
One improvement in particular is exciting the people who work the Outback - the development of a permanent stage, The Outback Amphitheater, a place where gatherings can be hosted and memories shared.
"A stage has been there in one form or another since the 1970s," Dr. Bornzin elaborated. "But it had always been built with materials not designed to last. The platform would slowly rot away and the university would raise safety concerns, then another generation of students would tear down the old stage and build a new one. This happened several times, but with this latest plan, the students and university worked together to achieve a design built to safety codes and built to last."
"We are trying to have it completed this spring, so we are getting very close," said Jones, who added that her fellow student, Trent Eliot, has been the lead builder and Casey Hons the early organizer and fund-raiser for the project. "We are trying to make it as green as possible. Most of the materials are recycled, and in the case of the big logs we've tried to use ones that were already downed." [read more about the Outback Stage...]
The Outback Stage - in progress...
Beyond the stage, the future holds many innovations for the Outback including the continued building of infrastructures like the new greenhouse and tool shed which recently became a fixture on the farm. There is also hope an upgrade to the entrance road will make it easier to get supplies to where they need to be; and improvements to the deer fence and gates will soon follow. "It just makes it so much easier for those new gardeners," Jones added, "to not have to worry about the deer while they are learning to garden."
"The Outback is a great example of how students can be visionaries," said Bornzin. "Outback grads have started numerous Bellingham farms and markets, including some of the first organic farms and CSAs in the region, and are part of a movement that is changing the way the world works. These ideas were things that 30 years ago people didn't know or care about; now you can get 'organic' at Haggen."
"When you think about it, it really is amazing!" Bornzin continued. "Roughly 20 students a quarter, every quarter since the early 80's, have been involved with the Outback, either through classes or independent studies. That means nearly 1,500 students have played a part in growing the Outback. These students have been part of a project, part of a movement, that has changed the way humans function on our planet."
Written by Jeremy Mauck