Tucked among Washington’s woodlands, grassy, flower-spotted savannas may come as a surprise. These prairies, though, are no accident. They are a window into history, stretching back thousands of years to reveal a survival strategy of indigenous tribes native to Washington. Through controlled burns, tribes prevented the encroachment of trees on open landscapes that offered wildflowers to be harvested for food and medicine.
Prairies’ ecological legacy extends even further back: they are a result of ice-age glacial retreat and the gravelly soils left behind. Beyond wildflowers and bunch grasses, Washington’s prairies provide vital habitat for many insects, birds, and small mammals. Conservation efforts today focus on restoring the ecosystem, reducing invasive weeds and protecting vulnerable species, like the sage grouse and pygmy rabbits of Central Washington.
This weekend, Washington’s grasslands get their moment in the sun, so to speak, with the annual Prairie Appreciation Day, May 12, at Glacier Heritage Reserve in Olympia. The Nature Conservancy has attended this event for several years, taking the opportunity to educate all ages about the importance of these lesser-known landscapes. Last year, our volunteer Tracy Eales attended and followed up with this tale of her growing appreciation forWashington prairies:
As I drove down to south of Olympia for Prairie Appreciation, I really didn't know what to expect. What's so fascinating about prairies anyway?
As I arrived, the parking lot was already getting packed. It was a 9:30 on a grey and VERY rainy Saturday, mind you! I was impressed at this early show of enthusiasm. The event spread out over a beautiful prairie covered by yellow, blue, and red flowers and teeming with wildlife (okay, birds and bugs!). It was lush and so pretty.
Even though it rained on and off throughout the day, we were greeted by the sun and many die-hard visitors with their children. At The Nature Conservancy’s table, we met newcomers to the event and people who attend every year. On a break, I walked the prairie path to visit the exhibits from the many organizations that support this vital land. There was so much to learn: from what types of seeds grow in this ecosystem to which amphibians need support; from birds that nest on the prairie to wolves trying to make a come-back; from bats to plants; strategies for land management, on and on. Hayrides brought visitors into a different section of the prairie that the walk didn't encompass, and even the circle drive back to the parking lot was lush and beautiful.
By the end the day, all I had seen answered that morning’s question. Now I know why Prairie Appreciation Day is so fascinating and why we all should care!