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News / Clark County News

Cowlitz Tribe donates $1M to Washington State University Vancouver to support life sciences

Gift will aid in construction of greenhouse at new building

By Griffin Reilly, Columbian staff writer
Published: May 20, 2023, 6:06am

Washington State University leaders announced Thursday the Cowlitz Indian Tribe is donating $1 million to support education and research in life sciences at Washington State University Vancouver.

The commitment is the largest tribal donation in WSU’s history and expected to specifically support the construction of a $4.5 million greenhouse that will be part of the Vancouver campus’s new Life Sciences building slated to open in 2024.

“The tribe has been an important partner for many years,” WSU Vancouver Chancellor Mel Netzhammer said. “The impact of this gift will be transformational.”

Netzhammer and WSU President Kirk Schulz described the gift as yet another piece of a cooperative relationship the two sides hope to maintain for decades to come as the Vancouver campus’s influence grows in Southwest Washington.

“This is part of a long-term relationship; we get to know them, they get to know us. We want to keep working at this,” Schulz said. “For Vancouver, the research capability has grown tremendously, which does wonders for the school.”

Cowlitz Tribe leaders said WSUV’s increased focus on life sciences and STEM made for an easy choice for what they’d support going forward.

“We believe the No. 1 most important thing to support is education, anything with STEM involved, specifically,” said Timi Russin, the Cowlitz Tribal Foundation chair. “Everything aligned perfectly for this.”

About the greenhouse

The new greenhouse, which was at one point a desired add-on awaiting outside fundraising to the Life Sciences building, will feature 3,300 square feet of space for labs, classrooms and independent research projects. The facility will allow students to further their understanding of plant species and soil native to Southwest Washington.

“So much of what our science is about is connecting with the environment: studying climate change in our region, learning about sustainable food production and more,” said Christine Portfors, WSU Vancouver’s vice chancellor for research and graduate studies and a professor of biology. “The greenhouse will help us understand our very own climate. And now, we can do so much of this work on a bigger scale.”

The focus on studying native land and plants, too, played a large role in the Cowlitz Tribe’s interest in providing funding for the greenhouse, leaders said.

“The greenhouse serves as a literal connection to the environment,” Russin said. “We want to incorporate cultural aspects to learning in the new building, and this should help.”

Portfors added that as an estimated 90 percent of WSU Vancouver graduates continue to live and work in Southwest Washington, increasing the availability of education in life sciences about the surrounding climate will provide the region with a more robust workforce of its own environmental stewards.

“We’re producing some of the prime movers and shakers of our region in this field,” Portfors said. “Hiring our own local graduates for key jobs instead of importing talent from elsewhere.”

Described as a “new chapter” in the relationship between the Cowlitz Tribe and WSU, Tribal Chair Patty Kinswa-Gaiser said she looks forward to continuing this same kind of philanthropic work.

“It’s our honor to help with this. We were unrecognized until 2000. But with the revenue from the hotel and casino, we can not only help schools, but fire services, food kitchens, Habitat for Humanity and more,” Kinswa-Gaiser said. “We are proud to do this work.”