Visitors at Fort Worden State Park often have their mind on one thing – the beach. And that can include many things, such as building sand castles, finding seashells, wading in the water, looking for native crustaceans, or walking along the dunes.
But what they may not notice is that Fort Worden’s dunes hold a delicate ecosystem, one that is as important to the Puget Sound as the marine life that lives under water.
“Non-native plants tend to displace the native species,” said Claude Manning, who is part of the Friends of Fort Worden Trail Team. “It’s a habitat for lots of animals. So when the non-natives displace the native plants, then that disturbs the balance in species that are threatened to maintain local ecology here.”
Manning was one of 25 volunteers from the Trail Team and the Olympic Chapter of the Washington Native Plant Society who joined a collaborative work party on Oct. 27 to help remove the non-native European dune grass Ammophila arenaria from the beach at Point Wilson.
For the untrained eye, Ammophila is nearly impossible to identify from the native dune grass, Leymus mollis. But volunteers received training from Sharon Schlentner of the Washington Native Plant Society before they worked to pull a dump truck full of dune grass prior to afternoon rain.
The native dune grass plays a strong role in protecting the beachhead and stabilizing the sand, but it’s often monopolized by the non-native species, Schlentner said. That puts the beach ecology at risk.
“There’s some coastal wildflowers that we’re specifically targeting on protecting on this project,” Schlentner said, pointing out a specific plant, called “sand verbena,” which is necessary for the survival of an endangered moth species.
“These are one of the more treasured coastal plants we have,” she said. “There are only eight places in the world where this moth lives, coexisting with this sand verbena. First, it’s just important for the Puget Trough, and second, it’s the amount of sand verbena that grows to the extent that the moths can be here. It needs it for several stages of its life cycle.”
The sand verbena moth is one example of how one plant can affect many lives, something Fort Worden’s Trail Team hopes to remind visitors. At the work party last weekend, in addition to weeding non-native grass, volunteers placed new posts to guide visitors to walk on marked paths to the beach instead of trampling over plant species.
“The grasses are what stabilize a dune,” Schlentner said. “Then, as it goes inward, the mosses take over. This moss layer is what keeps the sand stabilized so that other plants can get established. The reason we try to keep traffic minimalized in certain spots is because, when people walk on this crust, it just gets abolished.”
The Olympic Chapter of the Washington Native Plant Society has been working with the Washington State Parks and Friends of Fort Worden since 2006 to protect the coastal plant community at Point Wilson, often hosting work parties to pull Scot’s Broom, European dune grass, poison hemlock and other invasive plants from the park.
The Friends of Fort Worden Trail Team hosts work parties at least six times a year while members of the team work year-round to maintain the park’s many trails by picking up garbage, clearing plant debris and notifying staff about any other issues.
Among their accomplishments this year, the Friends of Fort Worden installed a public viewing telescope and a pair of ADA-accessible binoculars at the Triangle of Fire Viewpoint in the park.