August 10, 2011 – 12:51 am
Questions and concerns have been raised about the two acres of young tree clearing that occurred recently at the Naas Natural Area Preserve (NAP) located along Engle Road. The following information explains the Land Trust’s native prairie restoration project on this site.
The Whidbey Camano Land Trust has a mission to protect the best of all types of our Islands’ natural habitats, including wetlands, shoreline, forests and prairies. Occasionally we must carefully consider and weigh the importance of one type of habitat against another. This is the situation at the Naas NAP.
In the area cleared in 2010, endangered golden paintbrush plants have returned and are thriving because of the open light they receive.
Since prairie habitat is now nearly extinct on Whidbey and young conifer trees are in abundance, the Land Trust chose to remove some young trees to help save Whidbey Island’s most endangered ecosystem – our prairies. This recent tree clearing was the final phase of tree removal at the Naas NAP.
Native prairie habitat is very rare on Whidbey Island. Once covering about 8,000 acres, fewer than 80 acres (1%) of prairie remains in small fragments. The Naas NAP, now with 10 acres of open grassland, represents one-eighth of one percent of what used to be on the Island. That makes it incredibly important.
At the same time, the Land Trust also cares very much about forest protection and has already permanently protected over 2,700 acres of forest land in Island County. While the tree clearing was understandably disturbing to some, a total of less than five (5) acres of young conifers were removed in our prairie recovery project.
The Whidbey Camano Land Trust acquired the 33-acre Naas NAP in November 2005. The reason for this acquisition was to protect a population of Golden Paintbrush (Castilleja levisecta), a prairie plant species listed as Endangered by the State of Washington and Threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. The Naas NAP is one of 12 known occurrences in the world for this species.
The majority of the funding for the Naas NAP acquisition came from federal and state funds allocated specifically for recovery of Golden Paintbrush and its associated prairie habitat. A significant benefit of this acquisition, especially for nearby neighbors, is that it permanently removed the threat of residential development on the site—which would have occurred if the Land Trust had not purchased the property for prairie restoration. The trails and access that neighbors and island residents enjoy today would have been lost forever to private ownership.
When the Land Trust acquired the property in 2005, the population of Golden Paintbrush at the site was in severe decline due to shading from trees and shrubs invading the prairie grassland habitat. The majority of the loss occurred in the last 20 years, as documented by scientists at the Washington Natural Heritage Program. When the plant population was initially identified in the early 1980’s, the population was over 2,700 plants. By the time the Land Trust acquired the property, the population had fallen below 60 plants – due almost exclusively to the loss of open prairie habitat caused by the invading trees and shrubs.
The Land Trust developed a management plan for the Naas NAP; a major component of which is the recovery of the Golden Paintbrush population (as outlined in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Golden Paintbrush Recovery Plan). The plan was a requirement of the state and federal land acquisition funding and was approved by the Federal Golden Paintbrush Recovery Team. The Management Plan calls for increasing the Golden Paintbrush population by planting seedlings and restoring former prairie habitat that was invaded by trees and shrubs. Restoring the prairie habitat requires active management, including mowing, thatching, planting and occasional prescribed burns.
The Plan includes a multi-year effort to remove invading trees and shrubs. In 2008, the Land Trust cleared about two acres of trees and shrubs. The majority of the trees were under 15 years old; many were less than 10 years old. In 2010, another three-quarters of an acre of similarly-aged trees were cleared. Both of these areas are now being restored to native prairie—the Land Trust planted over 60,000 native prairie species, with more planting to come this fall.
The Land Trust is now completing the final tree clearing project identified in the management plan—two acres on former prairie with young and densely packed trees (referred to as a dog-hair stand). Two dozen trees were about 30 years old and the rest were younger. As a point of reference, the oldest trees were about 5 years old in the 1980’s when the site was first identified for Golden Paintbrush; the rest of the trees did not even exist on the site.
While the Land Trust restores the prairie, it is working on protecting nearby forest. South of this final tree clearing project is a stand of much older conifer trees next to a stand of maturing deciduous trees that will not be touched; both stands are part of the Naas NAP. These trees are not growing on prairie soils. The Land Trust plans to manage this forest area to evolve toward a conifer-dominated, old-growth condition. South of the Land Trust property, on Seattle Pacific University property, is what many call the Heritage Forest with amazing old-growth and mature conifer trees. The Land Trust is currently working with the landowner to acquire this site and permanently protect this rare forest. There is no comparison between this Heritage Forest and the young trees we recently removed to restore rare prairie habitat.
While this final clearing might appear unpleasant right now, the Land Trust will be restoring it to the historic prairie land cover. The Naas NAP is located in Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve which was established to protect the cultural and natural history of the area, as seen by the first European settlers to the Island. Native Americans kept the prairies from being invaded by trees and shrubs because they were an important source of food and medicine. The native prairies drew people to this area and are integral to the Ebey’s Reserve story – a story that barely exists anymore in the landscape. The Land Trust looks forward to a time in the future when the site will be covered with native prairie species and a thriving population of Golden Paintbrush that contributes to the recovery of the species as whole.
The Whidbey Camano Land Trust actively protects and restores important forest lands as well as this small acreage of remaining native prairie. Just last year, the Land Trust purchased and protected the 654-acre Trillium Community Forest, the largest contiguous private forest property in Island County. Please visit our project pages to find out about other forest properties we have protected, including key additions to State Parks and hundreds of acres of forest land now in County ownership that were slated by the Department of Natural Resources to be auctioned off for development.