Collaboration is key to protecting local prairies

South Sound prairies are disappearing. Only a century ago, prairie and oak woodlands made up more than 300,000 acres of the land. Now, just 10 percent of original prairie habitat exists, and only a fraction of that is in good condition.

In fact, Thurston County is one of the few remaining regions where prairie hasn’t been completely destroyed. Over the decades, the rapid pace of development and intrusion of nonnative species have nearly decimated our once-pristine prairies.

Prairies have many benefits. Their soils help provide fresh drinking water, their species enhance our agriculture and working lands, and the habitat as a whole protects the environment through a delicately balanced ecosystem. Without prairies, our water quality suffers and the native plants and pollinators that improve our environment disappear. If we do nothing to protect prairies, we will lose these benefits.

Last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, acting under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, officially listed two prairie species: the Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly and the streaked horned lark. Now, the Service has listed the Mazama pocket gopher as threatened.

Once a listing goes into effect, it is against federal law to harm the species or their habitat. Without a plan in place to protect their habitat, we would have to severely limit any development activities to avoid legal repercussions. Property owners would need to seek federal approval for any projects that may impact listed species.

To avoid this, Thurston County commissioners have already laid the foundation for a long-term plan that will preserve critical prairie habitat while maintaining the prosperity of our region. With the help of our partners, we’ve begun work on a Habitat Conservation Plan that will protect the listed species, give flexibility to landowners, and avoid federal liability.

The Thurston County Commission has a long history of working with landowners and conservation groups alike to protect our environment. In 2009, we adopted the Interim Prairie Ordinance, which was the start of creating a comprehensive plan to protect and manage prairie lands that will meet the standards of federal law but still keep land use decision-making at the local level.

This proactive decision lessened negative impacts to prairie habitat, and will likely shorten the time it takes to recover prairie species. That 2009 decision also helped the county receive three years of federal funding to buy prairie habitat and craft a wide-ranging plan.

We are working with partners such as the Center for Natural Lands Management and Natural Resources Conservation Service to purchase and manage large, intact pieces of prairie land, which should give landowners more options when they want to develop under the guidelines of the Habitat Conservation Plan.

Besides avoiding liability, limiting federal intervention and protecting critical habitat, the Habitat Conservation Plan keeps land-use decisions local and promotes responsible development. A plan of this magnitude can take years to create, but foresight has given us a head start.

And while the long-term plan is developed and finalized, we are developing an interim permitting strategy that will allow building and development projects to continue.

Throughout this process, we’ve learned that collaboration is key to success. Working with landowners and local conservation groups is imperative when it comes to understanding the needs of our region.

Joint Base Lewis-McChord has proved to be an integral partner to our conservation efforts as well. In a rare opportunity, the county has teamed up with the Department of Defense to protect sensitive habitat but also to maintain troop readiness. Funding for this includes a special award from DoD’s Readiness and Environmental Protection Integration Grant, as well as ongoing contributions from the Army Compatible Use Buffers program.

With the help and funding from our other partners, we’ve been able to secure more than 2,000 acres of prairie land for protection.

Our proactive, collaborative approach will be a win for prairies and a win for the people who call Thurston County home.