Restoring a great natural place | Editorial

When non-Native settlers began flooding into the Pacific Northwest in the 1850s, the prairies were the first to undergo considerable change because of their easy conversion to farming use.

Likewise, the prairie, or natural grassland, at American Camp was farmed and grazed after the joint military occupation ended in 1872. Non-native animal and plant species were introduced. Those non-native animal and plant species displaced indigenous animal and plant species, disrupting the ecosystem. This story was replayed throughout Western Washington.

The result? Today, Western Washington’s prairies — including that at American Camp — are widely considered the most imperiled ecosystems in the region. According to the Nature Conservancy, the largest native prairie left in Washington is 7,000 acres at Fort Lewis and McChord Air Force Base. It is here that you can see uncivilized prairie as it appeared prior to 1850.

San Juan Island National Historical Park, of which American Camp is part, wants to restore the American Camp prairie, in keeping with the 1966 law establishing the national park. That law calls for “interpreting and preserving the sites of American and English camps on the island and commemorating the historic events that occurred in connection with the final settlement of the Oregon Territory boundary dispute, including the so-called Pig War of 1859.”

Restoration is important for many good reasons. The American Camp prairie is a sacred place, an ancestral home, to which many Coast Salish people have ties. The prairie is a source of life, sustaining a diverse population of animal, insect and plant species. It is home to the Island Marble butterfly, which was believed extinct before being discovered here in 1998; the Island Marble exists nowhere else in the world.

Restoration won’t be easy. And for islanders who celebrate the American Camp rabbit, which was imported here as a food source, it won’t be popular.

Despite their place in island lore, it’s clear that rabbits continue to do a lot of damage to the prairie. With their presence, it’s unlikely the national park will succeed in protecting sensitive archeological sites, improving habitat for native plant species, and restoring the natural balance of the prairie ecosystem.

In accordance with the its 2008 General Management Plan, the national park is considering actions to restore the prairie at American Camp, including restoration of native plants, including the threatened golden paintbrush; controlling non-native and invasive plants; and removing the rabbits.

How will this be done? You can have some say on that matter; the national park is accepting public comment until April 10. Send comments to Christopher Davis, resource manager, at christopher_davis@nps.gov; call Davis at 378-2240 or write Superintendent, San Juan Island National Historical Park, P.O. Box 429, Friday Harbor, WA. 98250.

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