If you’ve ever found yourself walking by the Hillside Project that’s near the ISAT Building you might have seen overgrown grasses, weeds and wild flowers. The Hillside Project was created as an educational space that gives a taste of what the Shenandoah Valley naturally looked like before Europeans settled and changed the landscape 200-300 years ago.

The Hillside Project, now in its fourth year, is a showcase of three different ecosystems: grassland, forest and riparian, (the land adjacent to water). Among its educational and ecological goals, like preventing erosion under heavy rain, the Hillside Project also cuts back the need for mowing.

The grassland ecosystem, or native prairie, is the younger form of forests like the Edith J. Carrier Arboretum. Through succession, over time, woody mass would grow into young trees, but because the goal is to keep it a prairie, it must be mowed once a year.

This forest ecosystem is comprises 25 different species, mostly native to the area, and each planted twice.

“The trees were selected based on aesthetics and screening as well as usefulness for education,” Christie-Joy Brodrick Hartman, executive director for the Office of Environmental Stewardship and Sustainability and Hillside Advisory Committee chair, said.

The riparian ecosystem is at the bottom of the hill, and is comprised of even more species, further diversifying the area.

“The 1,000 feet of restored stream channel and associated riparian buffer provide valuable protection for the nearly 600 acre urbanized watershed that drains to this area,” Hartman said.

The vision, according to Hartman is to “diversify the landscape aesthetic, provide educational programming for the campus and the broader community and demonstrate environmental stewardship.”

Behind the simple landscape are four years of planning and preparation, starting from the presentation of the proposal in 2006 to its implementation in the 2010-11 school year, of collaboration and waiting for it to happen. The collaborative effort included faculty, staff, students and community members.

“Even though I was the initiator, it never would have succeeded if [former] President Rose hadn’t created the Office of Environmental Stewardship and Sustainability,” Wayne Teel, ISAT professor and committee member, said. “It took a top-down order to change the culture of the university so that it could accept something like this.”

Like Teel, Bobby Whitescarver, committee member and adjunct ISAT professor, agrees that the process was long and enduring.

“People don’t like change and it’s hard to go from the manicured lawn paradigm to a more sustainable paradigm where we’re actually using the landscape instead of just looking at it.”

According to Whitescarver, manicured lawn is a sterile environment that sustains fewer wildlife and pollinators.

The manicured lawn paradigm we know today dates back to European royalty in the 17th and 18th century where it was a display of luxury. According to Virginia Scott Jenkins, author of “The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession,” lawns became part of the common household during “the development of suburban housing after the Civil War.”

Today, the luxurious green lawn has become as common as owning a car. At JMU, the Quad is the perfect example of a lawn that is extensively enjoyed. However, there are many grassy locations on campus that are rarely used. Upon noticing the hillside’s uselessness to student activity many years ago, Teel derived inspiration for launching the Hillside Project, turning what was once a sterile environment for wildlife into a habitat for native species.

“We are using the landscape instead of just looking at it,” Whitescarver said.

Greg Dixon, a junior geographic science major, tested soil acidity, or basicity, and soil type on the hillside in his integrated science and technology environmental lab with ISAT and geography professor Carole Nash. He finds the hillside to be an important contribution to JMU’s campus because it strives for sustainability in development.

“The fact that we develop means we need to take into consideration the native ecosystem like climate, biotic and geologic factors,” Dixon said. “We have to understand the environment we live in.”

In associate professor of geographic science Amy Goodall’s geography senior seminar, “Global Diversity,” fall semester students striving to understand their environment found that the prairie has encouraged certain species to return to the area such as 11 different kinds of butterflies.

“We would have all kind of different birds and butterflies if they would just allow clover to grow,” Goodall said. “We would have rabbits. We would have other small mammals.”

Much lies on the road ahead in terms of JMU’s ecologically sustainable potential like Newman Lake, which Teel believes would benefit from best management practices like a riparian buffer.

“Newman Lake is a disaster because they mow up to the edge of the lake,” Teel said. “Nature doesn’t like short stuff and when there’s water, they like it thick and tall so that you can’t see. That isn’t what humans like. They like grass short so they can see, but unfortunately that isn’t ecologically healthy.”

Other management practices have been changed around campus like the recent improvement to retention ponds. An initiation by Abe Kaufman, energy conservation and sustainability manager for Facilities Management, resulted in Facilities Management not mowing the edges of the retention ponds. A move that has allowed grasses to grow the beginning of a riparian buffer and reduce time and energy spent mowing.

“Before they would mow right up to the edge of the ponds,” Teel said. “ It took a long time to get them not to mow [around] the retention ponds.”

These steps forward in sustainable practices seem to go well with JMU’s motto of, “Be the change.”

“JMU has taken huge strides in sustainability. My hats off to the administration and to faculty and students,” Whitescarver said.

As a word of advice to students in relation to initiating change, Teel said, “We are an organization designed to teach, and if students are wanting to learn particular things and want hands on stuff then they have to put pressure on the university to move in that direction.”

Contact Heather Hunter-Nickels at hunterhd@dukes.jmu.edu.