There are two magnificent oak trees on the corner of Steamboat Island Road and Sexton Drive. As a Griffin parent, I have driven by those oaks hundreds of times on the way to school, marveling at the dense mats of moss and ferns growing on strong limbs and the remnant prairie plants growing beneath. Late last winter, I stopped. I walked under the oaks and imagined how this native prairie habitat would look with rivers of camas running through it like long ago. The picture of a restored prairie in our backyard was too pretty to let go of, and is what prompted me to start doing some digging.
It turns out this small parcel is a part of Schneider’s Prairie and owned by the Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT). WSDOT also happens to be very supportive of protecting the oaks and restoring the prairie. Native prairies like this used to cover large sections of Thurston County, though mostly down south near the Glacial Heritage Preserve and Mima Mounds where some are still present. Today only about 3% of this habitat still exists. Scotch broom and sun-loving Douglas fir thrive in these open areas and conversion to forest can happen quickly without the traditional land management practice of controlled burns. Camas, that beautiful blue flower growing in pockets around the Steamboat/101 interchange, is a culturally important “First Food” cultivated by indigenous people of the area. Burning prairies not only increases this food source, it improves soil conditions to support myriad pollinators and endemic species. According to local historian Steve Lundin, Schneider’s Prairie was probably last burned more than 200 years ago.
Presenting the idea of prairie restoration to the Steamboat community was like setting a spark in a dry field. A single email to members of the Steamboat Conservation Partnership (SCP) this spring resulted in an immediate site visit and two work parties. Outfitted with gloves, chain saws, weed wrenches and clippers, SCP volunteers and other friends and neighbors removed the encroaching Douglas fir seedlings, cut down non-native black locust trees, pulled scotch broom and whacked back 10’ high Himalayan blackberry! After reaching out to Griffin School, seventy-five 4th graders helped out this May by removing brush from the prairie. They also learned about traditional camas harvest from Shawna Zierdt (Griffin parent, Native Plant Specialist and member of the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians) who demonstrated digging techniques and showed students how the relationship between Native people and the prairies is deep and present.
This project has had a tremendous jump start, thanks to the outpouring of interest and support from the Steamboat community. I wish I could say that the prairie has been fully restored, but there is still work to be done. Invasive plants will continue to move in and will need to be removed manually unless the property is burned, which is an idea for the future. In the meantime, 1,000 camas bulbs are on order and will be planted this fall, most of which are expected to bloom the following spring. Some of the invasive plants will be covered with black geotextile material to kill the plants and roots, while others will be hand cut and pulled to keep them under control.
The progress that has been made at this site in just a few short months is impressive. Special thanks goes out to SCP members and volunteers Jack Sisco, Paul Meury, Bonnie Blessing-Earle, Mark Fischer, Jim Leonard, Steve Lundin, Skip McGinty, Peter Reid, Elizabeth Roderick, and Joanne and Dave Schuett-Hames for sharing knowledge of this site, offering suggestions on how to proceed, and most of all showing up at work parties ready to work! We are also grateful to AmeriCorps member Hanna Jones, the US Fish and Wildlife’s Connecting People with Nature program, WSDOT, Griffin School, and the Washington Native Plant Society for their support and interest in this project. We welcome new ideas and volunteers to this project. Feel free to contact Thurston Conservation District staff member Stephanie Bishop at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more about the project and/or how you can get involved.
By Stephanie Bishop, Thurston Conservation District