Group restores prairie for golden paintbrush

Volunteers plant golden paintbrush on prairie in the Naas, or Bocker, Reserve. The Whidbey Camano Land Trust will remove some trees next week to improve the environment for the rare plant. - Photo courtesy of the Whidbey Camano Land Trust
Volunteers plant golden paintbrush on prairie in the Naas, or Bocker, Reserve. The Whidbey Camano Land Trust will remove some trees next week to improve the environment for the rare plant.
— image credit: Photo courtesy of the Whidbey Camano Land Trust

A rare plant found on Whidbey Island will soon have more space to grow.

The Whidbey Camano Land Trust will clear about two acres of small trees and brush on property it owns on Central Whidbey Island. That is part of the organization’s project that will restore prairie and help repopulate the golden paintbrush, a rare plant identified as a threatened species by the federal government and an endangered species by the state. There are only 11 places in the world where the plant, also known as Castilleja levisecta, grows naturally.

Cheryl Lowe, land steward for the Whidbey Camano Land Trust, said the clearing is part of an effort to restore the former Bocker Environmental Preserve to its original prairie condition for thousands of years. The Land Trust acquired the 33-acre preserve in 2005 from Seattle Pacific University.

Workers will start cutting the trees Monday. Lowe said only smaller trees will be removed. Clearing those trees will allow for more sun and make for a better environment for prairie plants.

“Our tree-removal project is being done to bring back a rare landscape that is a rich and treasured part of our natural and cultural history,” said Pat Powell, executive director for the Whidbey Camano Land Trust.

The process of restoring the rare golden paintbrush will take several phases and several years to complete. Once the small trees and underlying brush is removed, officials will see if there are any aggressive plants underneath, remove them and then introduce native plants.

“Our first phase is to bring back prairie vegetation,” Lowe said.

Volunteers will plant native grasses, sedges and wildflowers that are becoming rare due to development. Once the vegetation is restored, the Land Trust will start reintroducing the golden paintbrush.

Native Americans had for thousands of years maintained the present-day preserve prairie by burning it. In recent years, conifer trees have invaded the prairie.

It will take about a week to cut down the trees. Lowe said that only smaller trees that have been alive between 10 and 15 years will be removed. She stressed that the larger, older trees on the property will remain.

As for the cleared trees, plans call for chipping them up and being used as mulch on trails and for neighbors.

The Whidbey Camano Land Trust is working with the state Department of Natural Resources and the department of Fish and Wildlife on the reclamation project. The Land Trust received $182,000 worth of grants from the two agencies over the next two years to pay for implementing the project.

The prairie is one of the most endangered ecosystems in North America. Prairies and oak woodlands were historically common in the Puget Sound region and Whidbey Island originally had approximately 8,000 acres of prairie. Of that amount, less than 1 percent currently remains.

The Whidbey Camano Land Trust has protected approximately 5,200 acres on Whidbey Island. Those acres represent a variety of landscapes such as forests, farms, wetlands, prairies and coastal shorelines. The organization owns more than 3,300 acres.

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