Southern Oregon University has been named one of 12 universities in the nation to become finalists in the Climate Leadership Competition, and the only one in Oregon.

The competition is being held by Second Nature, a national nonprofit that promotes sustainability in higher education. It teams with the U.S. Green Building Council Center for Green Schools to evaluate those colleges who've signed on to the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment effort.

SOU scored high because of its work in many areas, including doing renovations to meet LEEDS (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) standards, purchasing water restoration certificates to help save the Klamath watershed and creating a Center for Sustainability on campus that meets with the SOU president and guides environmental programs, said Roxane Beigel-Coryell, sustainability and recycling coordinator for the school.

Touring SOU’s one-acre garden Tuesday, she said it’s part of the eco-recognition the university regularly gets, as “lots of students report having a problem with food insecurity.”

The garden sells Community Supported Agriculture boxes every Thursday to faculty and staff and sells them at a farm stand on the quad to students at discounted prices. Income from food sales helps pay for the garden, as does a $200,000 grant over five years.

The garden, now in its second season across from Ashland Middle School, has large plots of tomatoes, onions, peppers, squash, zucchini and other vegetables and is growing its first table grapes.

SOU has become the first university to offset 100 percent of its water use. It does this, says Beigel-Coryell, by conservation and purchase of $67,000 worth of water restoration certificates to the Bonneville Environmental Foundation, which uses it for restoring the now-dry Seven Mile Creek in the Klamath watershed.

This is the first time SOU has applied for the recognition or been a finalist in the Climate Leadership Competition.

"I think it’s a big deal," says Beigel-Coryell. "It’s the organization that helps all the colleges and universities reach goals for climate change under the president’s climate and carbon emission programs.”

SOU’s Center for Sustainability is the force behind the garden, the designation of SOU as the nation’s first Bee Campus, the Green House Adventure and the creation of many new classes on environment and sustainability in an array of majors, she says. The center is a creation of the SOU Sustainability Council, composed of 16 members from faculty, staff and students, which presents plans to the school president.

“There are a lot of academics now around sustainability,” she says, “and a student can be in any major and earn a Sustainability Leadership Certificate along with it. For instance, in the Business Department, people learn how to get people working together on what the business is doing to be sustainable.”

The competition is among all colleges and universities that are signatories of the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, a program of Second Nature. All of Oregon’s public universities are members. The two winners (one each from among two- and four-year schools) will be announced at the Greenbuild Leadership Awards Program Nov. 19 in Washington, D.C. There were 50 applicants.

Reach Ashland freelance writer John Darling at jdarling@jeffnet.org.