Opinion

SOUND OFF Nov. 24, 2001, "Many Whidbey plants in danger of extinction"

Lana Labuda attacked Whidbey Environmental Action Network (WEAN) and myself in her Nov. 17 “Soundoff” column for attempting to protect Blue Flag Iris on Grasser’s Hill and (presumably) the 25 other native plant species we believe are at risk of extinction from Whidbey Island. Her column contains numerous factual errors.

Ultimately, she attacks our motives. Our motives really are straight forward: to preserve and restore the native biological diversity of Whidbey Island and the Pacific Northwest. In simple terms, WEAN is dedicated to preventing the extinction of any native species of plant or animal from Whidbey. We use education, hands-on restoration (such as the ongoing revegetation at Zylstra Road and Highway 20), and litigation. WEAN is a membership organization and all who agree with our goals are welcome to join us.

When European-Americans colonized western Washington there were about 250,000 acres of prairie. Best estimates are that 95 percent has been lost and most of what’s left is seriously degraded. On Whidbey Island the numbers are similar. Originally there were about 7,800 acres of outwash prairie (Island County Soil Survey). There are now no more than 300 acres. A host of our actions have nearly destroyed this ecosystem: agriculture, interruption of the regular burning practiced by the natives, introduction of invasive non-native plants, and most recently residential development and road construction such as at Zylstra Road. Some of the destruction has been inadvertent and accidental, some deliberate. The motives don’t really matter. The effect is the same.

With the loss of the prairie ecosystem has come loss of the plant communities and the individual plant species that make up the prairie. Based on extensive research and field surveys, I’ve concluded that about two dozen native plant species are in danger of extinction from Whidbey. Almost all of these have recently suffered from development, including on Grassser’s Hill. Ms. Labuda’s husband is well known for his constant mowing. (Last summer he started a several acre grass fire when his mower hit a rock.) According to Island County’s staff ecologist, the Blue Flag Iris in the area he mows, “is very stunted and through frequent mowing has no opportunity to flower.”

Ms. Labuda states that the Iris “grows commonly on both sides of the Cascades.” In fact, this species has never been reported from western Oregon and was never common in western Washington. There is only one location in western Washington where it is still known to occur: Grasser’s Hill. It covers less than one-half acre in small patches. She also implies that this species was introduced to Grasser’s Hill. If so, it was before 1897, when Nathaniel Gardner collected a specimen. There really is no evidence that this species was introduced. The Blue Flag Iris on Grasser’s Hill is a regional rarity.

The Iris is just one of many native plant species left in this small remnant of the prairie that once covered thousands of acres. Chocolate Lily, Camas Lily, Death Camas, Roemer’s Fescue, Northern Saitus, California Oatgrass, Foothill Sedge, Wooly Sunflower, Congested Brodaiea, Purple Snakeroot, Blue-eyed Grass, Hyacinth Brodaiea and others still grow in these last few refuges.

Why should we care if these species are exterminated from Whidbey? Because they are part of our heritage, part of everyone’s heritage. And if we lose our heritage, we lose our past. If we lose the past, we won’t know where we’re from — and neither will our children. These native wildlands are our roots. Plants without roots die, and so does people’s spirit.

Langley resident Steve Erickson is a founding Board member of Whidbey Environmental Action Network, a non-profit corporation

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