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Nov. 26, 2022

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Lacamas Prairie slowly returning to life

DNR, volunteers work together to save, nurture rare plants at Camas natural area

By , Columbian Features Editor
7 Photos
Kathyellen Blovits, left, Heather Cashmore, center, and Kim Graybeal put native plants in the ground to help restore the Lacamas Prairie Natural Area in late April.
Kathyellen Blovits, left, Heather Cashmore, center, and Kim Graybeal put native plants in the ground to help restore the Lacamas Prairie Natural Area in late April. (Photos by Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

CAMAS — Hemmed in by housing subdivisions, a wet meadow known as Lacamas Prairie holds a trove of rare plant species, including one of the largest patches anywhere of Bradshaw’s desert parsley, a rare plant with delicate yellow flowers.

Lacamas Prairie is Washington’s best surviving remnant of the dwindling ecosystem known as Willamette Valley wet prairie. It once covered more than 1 million acres along the Willamette and Columbia rivers. Farming destroyed most of these meadows and lowland oak forests in the early 1900s.

Now there’s just 2,000 acres remaining, much of it scattered, according to the Washington Department of Natural Resources. The agency is slowly and steadily working to restore a 1,622-acre swath, established as the Lacamas Prairie Natural Area in 2007.

“We want our grandkids and their grandkids to know what an oak forest looks like,” said Carlo Abbruzzese, natural areas manager for DNR.

The agency owns 215 acres of the prairie, while Clark County owns 244 acres and Columbia Land Trust owns about 14. The remaining 70 percent is privately owned. DNR received a $3.4 million state grant in 2019 and another $2.9 million in 2021 to purchase and conserve land within Lacamas Prairie.

“It will take years to acquire all the land, and some property owners may not choose to sell. I’d be surprised if we bought everything within the boundary,” Abbruzzese said. “But (landowners) may choose to protect the landscape anyway.”

Camas Meadows Golf Course, for example, guards a thriving crop of Bradshaw’s desert parsley.

The wild plant, more formally known as Bradshaw’s lomatium, is a slender parsley with threadlike leaves. Yellow flowers shoot from a central point, but they bloom for just a short time in April and May. The rest of the year, they can barely be seen.

The federal government added Bradshaw’s lomatium to the endangered species list in 1988. Until 1994, scientists thought it didn’t exist in Washington. Then Clark County wetlands specialists discovered the 6-inch-tall plant growing near Green Mountain, northwest of Camas, where a developer wanted to put a golf resort.

The Green Mountain Golf Course developer reached an agreement with The Nature Conservancy to protect Bradshaw’s lomatium. The nonprofit recruited volunteers to yank invasive Himalayan blackberry and Canada thistle and cooperated with local fire districts to conduct prescribed burns. A century of active fire suppression allowed ash trees, brush and other vegetation to encroach on the meadow-loving lomatium.

The golf course has since closed, and The Nature Conservancy has ceded restoration efforts to DNR. Controlling weeds will require ongoing vigilance with periodic prescribed burns, Abbruzzese said. But that work now is interspersed with planting native species that will help the prairie return to a mosaic of grassland and Oregon white oak forest. Since 2019, DNR has collaborated with WSU Clark County Extension Master Gardener program volunteers, who are growing such natives as large leaf lupine, tufted hair grass and even Bradshaw’s lomatium at the 78th Street Heritage Farm and their own homes for transplanting.

Biodiversity underfoot

On a Friday morning in late April, Abbruzzese and nine master gardeners met to plant on a soggy patch northwest of Lacamas Lake not open to the public. The volunteers carried large trays of plants they had started earlier.

Abbruzzese pointed out an easy-to-miss lomatium, just beginning to bloom, so no one would step on it.

“A local gardener probably wouldn’t know what’s right in front of them,” said volunteer Kathyellen Blovits, who lives on the border between Vancouver and Camas.

“It’s kind of a paradigm shift to go from looking at big trees to what’s right under your foot,” said volunteer Heather Cashmore of Vancouver.

Indeed, the Lacamas Prairie Natural Area exists not just to protect Oregon white oak or Bradshaw’s lomatium, but a variety of rare species important for biodiversity, Abbruzzese said. They include Oregon coyote-thistle, Hall’s aster, dense sedge, Nuttall’s quillwort, small-flowered trillium and slender-billed nuthatch.

It will be years yet before Lacamas Prairie will reach the point where it’s considered fully restored, Abbruzzese said. But it’s coming along.

Success there has played a key role in bringing Bradshaw’s lomatium back from the brink. The federal government removed Bradshaw’s lomatium from the endangered species list last year.

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