High Plains Grasslands Research Station: Looking back, looking ahead
April 4, 2011
What a year 1928 was: Mickey Mouse made his first movie appearance; Amelia Earhart flew across the Atlantic; J. Calvin Coolidge, Jr., the conservative Republican lawyer born in Vermont and lately governor of Massachusetts, resided in the White House; and family orchards and gardens were the standard source of fresh produce. The Green Movement’s encouragement to “eat local” was more than six decades in the future, and would likely have drawn puzzled looks at a time when supermarkets were a new idea and rare in even large population centers.
Also that year, Congress passed, on March 19, the bill creating a federal agricultural research station near Cheyenne, Wyo. Approximately 75 days later, 2,139 acres of the High Plains had been leased to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for 199 years, and Robert Wilson was directing station construction from a temporary office on the south side of Roundtop Hill below Cheyenne’s then 22-year-old water-treatment plant west of Fort Francis E. Warren.
Herbert Hoover was elected President in November of that year, and by January 1929, Wilson was directing carpenters as they installed interior trim in the headquarters building. A budget shortfall ended construction and further work waited until Congress passed, on March 4, 1929, a Deficiency Appropriation Bill for $25,000 with the funds being immediately available for the Station.
The decision was then made to build another staff house, plus a storage cellar, a headhouse (a building attached to the greenhouses), a dairy barn addition to the main barn, and garages behind all residences and the headquarters building. Twenty-five thousand dollars went a long way in Cheyenne in 1929!
Eight months after the October 1929 stock market crash, 36-year-old Aubrey Claire Hildreth resigned his position at the University of Maine Agricultural Station and left the blueberries and cranberries of Orono to travel with his wife Marie and sons John (age 8) and Robert (age 3) to Cheyenne to assume the duties of Station Superintendent at the Cheyenne Horticultural Field Station. By early July 1930, Hildreth’s young sons were playing on the large, leather-upholstered chairs in the lobby of the Plains Hotel, where the family stayed before moving into the Superintendent’s Residence at the Station.
Robert Wilson’s mission was to build the station. Dr. Hildreth’s mission was to build a research program identifying and propagating shade, ornamental, fruit and shelterbelt trees, shrubs, vines and vegetables adapted to the harsh, high-elevation conditions of the region. In short – to deliver the science for moderating home and farmstead microclimate with windbreaks and for enhancing local food production with adapted plants.
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Dr. Hildreth wasted no time. By 1932, he was reporting that 866 fruit trees had been planted in a 1931 dry-land test for hardy tree-fruit varieties, and that 70 percent were still alive in 1932. This survival rate appears to have surprised him, since he specifically noted in the 1932 annual report that the plantings “… included many varieties not (thought) adapted to prairie conditions …” In other words, losses were expected and death defined material not adapted to the Cheyenne climate.
By the end of 1933, Dr. Hildreth recorded nearly 6,000 accessions or entries that had been added to the Station plant collections and studies. Besides tree fruits, Station research included work with currants, gooseberries, raspberries, and strawberries that eventually resulted a special breeding program and the release of the “Fort Laramie” ever-bearing strawberry and the raspberries “Trailblazer,” “Pathfinder” and “Plainsman.” New information on a wide range of adapted plants was presented at annual field days and through a regular newspaper column.
By 1974, improved grazing systems and mined land reclamation had replaced horticultural concerns as priority agricultural problems of the region. The research mission changed, and Congress renamed the Station the High Plains Grasslands Research Station to reflect the new research focus and the subsequent creation of the USDA-Agricultural Research Service’s Rangeland Resources Research Unit (RRRU).
The Station’s research programs have continued to evolve, and RRRU scientists are now focusing on: (1) rangeland health and monitoring, including combined conservation and production strategies with newly-initiated projects addressing the combined effects of grazing, prescribed fire, and prairie dogs on ecosystem goods and services, (2) global change and carbon sequestration, including the only rangeland experiment addressing increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) and temperatures on native ecosystems, and (3) fundamental ecological understanding of the causes and consequences of invasive weeds in semi-arid rangeland ecosystems.
Research plans change, and the Station changes. Since 1930, an ongoing change has been the gradual maturing and growth of the many landscaping and shelterbelt trees. Many of these trees are pines and now hundreds of pine trees are dying as a result of mountain pine-beetle infestations. Infested trees, when they are detected, are being removed; by that means, the Station staff hope to save some pine trees from the beetle.
Fortunately, a great variety of tree species were planted in the early years. Thus, while loss of the pines will change much of the look of the Station’s landscaping and shelterbelts, many non-susceptible trees will remain.
A more positive change has resulted from recent significant investment in station infrastructure, including replacement of a portion of the original sewer line most affected by tree roots. Station staff are working on landscaping water conservation and cost-cutting measures and will conduct a trial conversion of some of its blue grass and fescue lawns to native blue grama and buffalo grass. If the initial conversions are successful, the remaining lawns will also be converted to native species along with additional xeriscaping.