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A landscape shaped by human hands

By Danielle Hayden
Photo by Jon Armstrong

The strength and tenacity of the oak prairie ecosystem.

The oak prairie landscapes of Western Washington carry a fascinating story of stewardship from Indigenous traditions that included burning the area with frequent, low-intensity fires to remove excess vegetation. The fires were carefully controlled to preempt deleterious effects, and the vegetation that remained, such as the oaks and camas, was multipurpose: used as medicine, as a nutritious food source, to attract elk for hunting, and even as currency with other Native American peoples such as the tribes east of the Cascade crest.

Burning also helped to avert pests and pathogens as well as fuel buildup, so that when there were forest fires, they burned at cooler temperatures than many of the fires we experience today. This practice continued for thousands of years until it was disrupted by the arrival of settlers. Although such burning is now prohibited at many oak prairies due to the proximity of nearby development, the Indigenous people of the region created an ecosystem that has endured. The land would not be what it is today without this careful management.

One place to experience the oak prairie is the Morse Wildlife Preserve in Graham, Washington. Co-managed by Forterra and the Tahoma Audubon Society, the preserve has been instrumental in both raising awareness and taking action to help ensure the well-being of our environment and the species — some of which are endangered — that dwell upon it. From educational programs and partnerships with local schools that foster stewardship in the next generation to engaging a dedicated team of volunteers known as the Morse Force, the Morse preserve cultivates strong connections between visitors and its expansive landscape — 238 acres replete with diverse ecosystems such as wetlands, conifer forest, oak savanna, and oak prairie.

The oak prairie at Morse Wildlife Preserve is a current Forterra restoration site. Restoration can be a slow, steady process — the oaks there now (not visible) are young seedlings, mostly from naturally seeded acorns. They can grow to be 50-90 feet tall and live for 500 years.

The individuals who work to sustain the oak prairies today do so through a combination of research on the most effective management methods, a bit of trial and error, and continuous — often arduous — engagement with the landscape itself (Morse Force volunteers log roughly 800 hours annually). This year, the Morse Wildlife Preserve marks its 25th anniversary as a protected and publicly accessible open space. And though the threats of Covid-19 and wildfires may have raised anxieties, they have also raised awareness about the value of the open space in our midst. Perhaps now more than ever, it’s worth appreciating the dedication of many generations of stewards that allows a landscape like Morse to not only endure but thrive.