When the Preservation Trust acquires a new nature preserve, we begin a long and thoughtful relationship with the land. At times the property is part of a stable ecosystem that requires nothing more than an occasional visit to confirm that all is well. In other cases, however, intervention – in the form of restoration – may be the only way to avoid irreversible damage.
What does “natural” mean? When do we accept that change is natural? And how do humans (more precisely human activity) fit into this discussion? Ecologists engage in endless debate about the role and limitations of restoration, and we at the Preservation Trust fully appreciate the complexity of this issue. In the meantime, the health of the lands we are protecting does not stay static, and neither does our commitment to caring for them.
In some cases, restoration is as simple as removing invasive species so that native species can thrive. As an example, English holly, an aggressively invasive plant, had established itself on our new Mottola Preserve on Lopez Island. After removal of the holly, the native salmonberries and sedges are flourishing in its place.
Another restoration approach we’ve used is to re-introduce or expand threatened or extirpated species. It is estimated that only 1% of historical Garry oak savannah habitat in the San Juan Islands remains intact. Western bluebirds, which were out-competed for dwindling nest sites by non-native birds, completely disappeared from the islands in the 1960’s. Golden paintbrush – an endangered wildflower species that once thrived from Oregon to British Columbia – remains viable on only a handful of sites, including a few in the San Juan Islands. These once prospering species have either disappeared or significantly dwindled in numbers. As a landowner with access to sites where they once thrived, the Preservation Trust is in a unique position to help them survive.
Restoration requires careful planning. Clearing invasive plants opens up bare ground that can be quickly populated by opportunistic species like thistles and non-native grasses, so we intervene by planting native species. On Waldron Island, we are removing young Douglas-fir trees that are competing with old growth Garry oaks and then reseeding the surrounding grasslands. On Vendovi Island, we are removing young firs to re-establish the rare native prairie system that they are displacing.
It doesn’t take long to be humbled by restoration. Removing one native plant (like Douglas-fir) to save others can seem a contradictory concept, and we’ve learned that you can’t pull on one thread without unintended consequences. Yet doing nothing at all is a certain path towards the permanent loss of indigenous island habitat. With a mission to care for the health and future of our island lands in perpetuity, the Preservation Trust is in a unique position to protect some of the diversity that we’ve inherited. You never know: even on the smallest scale, restoration of native species can provide us not only with a window into our past, but also with important – perhaps even essential – options for our grandchildren.