Kah Tai Prairie Preserve stationed in Port Townsend

Richard Tucker
Posted 7/11/18

There are many little known pockets of magic scattered throughout our community. One of these hidden treasures is the Kah Tai Prairie Preserve.Nestled on the grounds of the Port Townsend Golf Club is …

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Kah Tai Prairie Preserve stationed in Port Townsend

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There are many little known pockets of magic scattered throughout our community. One of these hidden treasures is the Kah Tai Prairie Preserve.

Nestled on the grounds of the Port Townsend Golf Club is a small plot of wildflowers that have lived there for many thousands of years. A remnant of the prairies that once covered the Kah Tai Valley — from Kah Tai Lagoon to Chinese Gardens — this 1.2-acre preserve is a direct link to the distant past. 

 

Some Prairie History

Imagine, 16,000 years ago, the Olympic Peninsula lay under 3,000 feet of glacial ice. Then, as temperatures rose, the glaciers began to retreat, leaving trails of crushed rock in their wake. Beautiful, drought-resistant wildflowers and grasses emerged on these sandy soils and thrived during a warm, dry period lasting until 5,000 years ago. 

Over time, the weather gradually became cooler and wetter, and the balance tipped in favor of forests. 

Where prairies had once thrived untended, shrubs and trees began invading these open spaces and overrunning the sun-loving grasses and wildflowers … Unless humans intervened.

The Native tribes who inhabited this land for millennia needed the prairies.They were crucial food sources, supplying edible roots like blue camas bulbs and rich grasses that attracted elk and deer. 

Local tribes intentionally cultivated and maintained their prairie “gardens.” They saved and replanted small bulbs as seed stock, and only harvested each area every few years to give the plants time to regenerate.

More critically, American Indians managed the prairies by deliberately burning them every one to three years to keep them clear and open. When fire sweeps through a prairie, it destroys invading shrubs and evergreen trees. However, as prairie plants can regenerate from their roots, they are able to survive fires.

When settlers came to our area, they were attracted to the open prairies. First-generation resident James McCurdy described the Kah Tai Valley as having, “the appearance of a beautiful park. Myriads of wild flowers transformed the valley floor into a many-hued carpet.” 

Preferring open spaces to shady forests, pioneers quickly claimed prairieland for farming and homesites. Native tribes were displaced and discouraged from burning the land, and local prairies were largely lost — overtaken by forests, farming and development. 

Today, less than 5 percent of Western Washington’s original prairies remain.

In Port Townsend, one remnant escaped this fate and survived. It’s on land use as the rough for a couple of holes at Port Townsend Golf Club. A number of local botanists and naturalists studied the prairie plants, among them were Nelsa Buckingham, Robert Steelquist, Janet Kearsley, Jerry Gorsline and Gerry Bergstrom.

In 1986, the Washington Native Plant Society Olympic Chapter entered into an agreement with the city of Port Townsend to maintain the prairie for 25 years. Thus, the Kah Tai Prairie Preserve was created.

In 2011, the agreement was renewed for another 25 years.

WNPS members, like Dixie and Dave Llewellyn, Forest Shomer and Ann and Fred Weinmann, care for the preserve, working along with other volunteers to keep invasive weeds at bay so the prairie continues to flourish. 

Although the best time to visit the prairie is the beginning of May for the spring bloom, the preserve is open to the public year round. Visitors wanting to connect with this important piece of the past can use the Port Townsend Golf Club parking lot. The kiosk provides information about the prairie and also lets you know you’re in the right spot.

 

Richard Tucker is executive director of Jefferson Land Trust. He has dedicated his entire working life to collaborative efforts protecting land and water — from the Puget Sound all the way to the Deep South. Jefferson Land Trust’s column relating local stories of the land will appear monthly in the Leader.

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