KAHLOTUS -- The vegetation covering a ridge about three miles north of Kahlotus doesn't look like much more than a bunch of grass.
But the Kahlotus Ridgetop is among the last remnants of the Palouse prairie that used to cover Eastern Washington and reached into Oregon and Idaho.
That's why the National Park Service is considering naming the 240 acres owned by the state Department of Natural Resources a National Natural Landmark.
National Natural Landmarks are recognized as some of the nation's best examples of geological or biological resources. There are 586 National Natural Landmarks nationwide, with 17 in Washington state, said Steve Gibbons, National Natural Landmark coordinator for the Pacific West region of the National Park Service.
The Kahlotus Ridgetop could become the first new National Natural Landmark in the state since a 10-year moratorium in 1989 halted consideration for new landmarks, Gibbons said. The National Park Service first considered the ridgetop in 1987 after it was recommended by Washington, Oregon and Idaho heritage programs.
An audit of the federal program identified some deficiencies that had to be addressed before work could continue, he said. The National Park Service added 10 full-time staff members to run the program rather than having it as one of many duties for existing staff at regional offices.
The National Park Service has been taking a second look at projects halted by the moratorium, Gibbons said.
The ridgetop essentially is a bunchgrass grassland, with a few shrubs and sagebrush and no trees, said David Wilderman, DNR natural areas program ecologist. In the spring, wildflowers cover it.
The ridgetop from top to bottom is only about 100 feet high, he said.
The preserve mostly has recovered from a wildfire several years ago, Wilderman said, although a fire line still is visible to those who know where to look.
The Kahlotus Ridgetop is a natural area preserve used for education and research and is only visited by permission from DNR.
Most who visit the ridgetop are school groups, other organizations and research scientists, Wilderman said.
Rex Crawford, DNR natural heritage ecologist, said it's one of the few places where people can see what the Palouse prairie actually looked like.
Settlers converted most of the Palouse prairie into farms around the turn of the last century, said Crawford, who was involved in the site evaluation for the landmark process both times.
Although DNR did rent the property to farmers at one time, Crawford said it never was farmed. The family housed draft horses there during the fall, which meant the vegetation there wasn't damaged.
The landmark status would highlight the value of the Kahlotus Ridgetop as one of the largest remaining portions of the Palouse prairie, Crawford said.
"It's just the best of what's left," he said.
And it is home to the bluebunch wheatgrass and Idaho fescue, two native types of bunchgrass, Gibbons said. Bluebunch wheatgrass is the state's official grass.
Landmark status won't change the day-to-day management of the Kahlotus Ridgetop, Crawford said.
The voluntary National Natural Landmark program doesn't place any restrictions on landowners who agree to have their property considered for landmark status, Gibbons said. But the National Park Service does expect that landowners will be good stewards.
One benefit is the pride of being recognized by a national program, Gibbons said.
And in some cases, National Park Service staff can provide technical assistance or help find money for resource-related enhancement projects, he said.
Kahlotus Ridgetop overcame the first hurdle in the process to becoming a landmark when the National Natural Landmark subcommittee of the National Park System Advisory Board recommended the full advisory board consider Kahlotus Ridge for landmark status, Gibbons said.
It's the only Washington location on the list for consideration during the advisory board's April 12-13 meeting in San Francisco.
If the board approves the designation, the National Park Service director and the Secretary of the Interior still will need to sign off on the proposal, Gibbons said, which could be complete in July.