ASHLAND — Peppered amid an arrangement of plants meant to represent a leopard's spot patterns are small Dragon's blood starter plants that, when in bloom, will suggest the blood spatter caused by a poacher's bullet.

ASHLAND — Peppered amid an arrangement of plants meant to represent a leopard's spot patterns are small Dragon's blood starter plants that, when in bloom, will suggest the blood spatter caused by a poacher's bullet.

Walkways replicating a dry stream bed crisscross through three large slate-walled circles whose overlap represents what comes together inside the world's top wildlife forensics lab — crime scene, victim and suspect.

And nearby will stand lighted pillars whose designs represent the five science disciplines employed inside the National Forensics Laboratory — pathology, morphology, chemistry, genetics and digital evidence.

It's all just like the Department of Homeland Security wants.

The new landscaping project in front of the Ashland lab of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service represents the U.S. Fish and Wildlife's effort to meet new security requirements in a picturesque fashion that also tells the story of the wildlife "CSI" work done there. New or remodeled federal buildings must be landscaped so that they are not susceptible to a car bombing.

So instead of concrete and barbed wire, the lab is protected by berms, rocks, pathways and 4,000 plants in what will become a waterless garden loaded with symbolism.

"We have something beautiful that the public can enjoy while also serving a useful function," says Ken Goddard, the lab's director. "It visibly displays who and what we are. And it keeps trucks 20 feet away from the lab."

The project, which cost $250,000, is the final phase of the $15 million expansion and makeover of the Ashland lab so it's safe to handle and preserve even the most tainted wildlife evidence found anywhere in the world.

The lab, off East Main Street in Ashland, remains the only full-service crime lab in the world devoted to wildlife law-enforcement. It serves not only the cases brought by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents, but also U.S. federal wildlife inspectors and 169 foreign countries that are part of a global effort to stamp out the illegal international trade in endangered species.

While the lab remains off-limits to the public over concerns about tainting evidence, some members of the public have discovered its pathways and studied the symbolism within it, says Ed Espinoza, the lab's assistant director.

"And some dogs are enjoying it a little more than I'd like, but what the heck," Espinoza says.

The extent of the landscaping and the tab have raised eyebrows around Ashland.

Neighbor Azade Rosenberg says she understands the lab's Homeland Security requirements, but she believes tax dollars would have been better spent somewhere between concrete slabs and the end result.

"It's a pretty fancy-schmancy thing," Rosenberg says. "It seems like overkill. They could have just sprinkled some grass seed."

Goddard says the final design, which also includes landscaping on the sides and back of the building, is about $65,000 more than a more non-artistic landscape plan that was originally envisioned. The difference came by trimming money in the construction costs, Goddard says.

"I think we did a nice thing for the community," Goddard says.

The end result represents what lab officials called creative ways to fulfill design requirements of Homeland Security as well as the city of Ashland.

As part of its expansion permit requirements, city officials asked for a educational component to be incorporated at the lab, Goddard says.

Instead of going with the original idea — a gazebo with posters in it — lab officials thought big, Goddard says.

They asked a University of Oregon graduate class in landscape more than a year ago to create designs that tell stories of how the lab uses high-tech science to solve world-wide poaching and smuggling cases.

Ten designs were unveiled in a open house tour in April 2006, during which more than 800 people inspected the designs. Several hundred voted on their favorites, Goddard says.

The top three were sent to the fish and wildlife service's own designer in Portland, who created the final plans incorporating all three.

The meandering creek bed is deep enough that any approaching truck would end up high-centered in it, Goddard says. The plants are placed to form patterns suggesting a wounded leopard if viewed from the air — once the Dragon's blood blooms and lives up to its name.

"Personally, I don't see it out there right now," Espinoza says. "We'll have to wait until spring."

The plants are all drought-tolerant and native to the region, Espinoza says. Once their roots establish, the landscaping will not require watering, he says.

Also, the Ashland Garden Club helped plant the garden and will assist in maintenance, Goddard says.

"This really appeals to us on a lot of levels," Goddard says.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail mfreeman@mailtribune.com.