OLYMPIA— The Nature Conservancy, Center for Natural Lands Management (CNLM), Wolf Haven, Washington departments of Natural Resources and Fish and Wildlife, local fire districts, and Thurston County have plans to cooperatively burn several South Sound prairie preserves possibly starting August 4, and running through early October. These controlled burns are part of an ongoing effort to steward and restore the fire-dependent prairie ecosystem that once dominated the Thurston County landscape, and to reduce fire hazards by reducing built-up brush.
These controlled burns help to return nutrients to the soil and keep non-native plants at bay. Fires are part of a long tradition in Washington’s South Sound prairies, something Native Americans initiated centuries ago to help sustain the habitat as an important food supply. As a result, fire became a key ecological process necessary to maintaining this rich and vibrant ecosystem.
“The native prairies essentially evolved with fire,” said Mason McKinley of CNLM, the project manager. “Our South Sound prairies are beautiful, wide-open places—places with a remarkable diversity of wildflowers, birds and butterflies. Fire is essential to this diversity and to the prairies’ ecological health.” The Conservancy and its partners have been conducting controlled prairie burns in the Thurston County area since 2001.
Depending on safe and favorable weather conditions, several burns are planned during the coming weeks. Sites include: Thurston County’s Glacial Heritage Preserve; Department of Natural Resources’ Mima Mounds and Rocky Prairie preserves; Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Scatter Creek Wildlife Area; Wolf Haven; and the Conservancy’s Tenalquot Prairie. Many of the burns will be small, designed to study fire’s effects on habitat. The largest planned burn will be 80 acres at Glacial Heritage.
The fires will be carefully managed by trained Nature Conservancy and CNLM crews with support from DNR and local fire districts, who will have necessary equipment and supplies on site to safely conduct each burn. The Nature Conservancy has considerable experience with controlled burns, each year burning over 300,000 acres nationwide across numerous habitat types.
The South Sound prairies and oak woodlands are considered one of the most endangered ecosystems in Washington—threatened primarily by development and noxious weeds. These grasslands, historically found primarily in Thurston, Pierce, Mason, Lewis and Grays Harbor counties, are part of a more extensive and endangered system of prairies and oak woodlands stretching from near Victoria, British Columbia, to Eugene, Oregon.
The prairies’ existence is due to a combination of geology and Native American practices. The grasslands were formed during the last Ice Age, approximately 15,000 years ago, when the continental ice sheet began to recede. The receding glacier left behind cobble, gravel, and silt—the thin, droughty soil that exists today in much of the South Sound.
The prairies were maintained by Native Americans, who burned the grasslands in the summer and fall to encourage the growth of camas, spring gold, and other prairie-dependent flowers with bulbs or roots, which native people harvested as a major food source. The burning also improved the habitat for overwintering elk and deer, allowing Native Americans to hunt closer to home.
Reporters interested in covering this year’s prescribed fire program should contact Mason McKinley at (360) 584-2538.
The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. The Conservancy and its more than 1 million members have protected nearly 120 million acres worldwide. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the Web at www.nature.org.
Media Relations Manager for The Nature Conservancy in Washington