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Prairie Restoration Expert Robert Pelant

Reporting and Photos by Bellamy Pailthorp
Robert Pelant, Chief Executive Officer of the Pacific Rim Institute in Coupeville, examines a section of the prairieland on Whidbey Island. | Bellamy Pailthorp

When you think of the Salish Sea, the image that first comes to mind probably doesn’t include grassy plains and meadows. But, in fact, the concept of this shared ecosystem that unites the US and Canada extends to the entire basin of the watershed.

A small nonprofit on Whidbey Island is working to restore 175 acres of prairielands that were once farmlands in the center of the Salish Sea.

“We’re on a glacial outwash prairie, at about 220 feet above sea level,” says says Robert Pelant, Chief Executive Officer of the Pacific Rim Institute in Coupeville.

“It has turned into a lovely, diverse native prairie,” he says, sitting cross-legged on a lush green meadow peppered with clusters of yellow, white and purple wildflowers.


He says restoration is a complex and never-ending process.

“One thing we’re not attempting to do is like you might look at the restoration of an old building, to make it look exactly like it looked in 1820 or something,” Pellant said.

“We are working to actually build strength, health, and resiliency into the prairie and savannah and forest ecosystems around here,” he said.

It often takes about three to five years to restore a section of abandoned agricultural land into something more like native prairie, Pelant said. Invasive plants and weeds need to be removed so native prairie plants can hold their ground.

One of the main restoration techniques his group uses was shunned for centuries: Fire.

“The loss of fire here was one of the critical, if not the most critical factor in the degradation of our ecosystems,” Pelant says.

The reintroduction of controlled burns has proven to be one of the most effective methods to bring back native plants. It was used for thousands of years by Native Americans.

“So the native plants are adapted to the fire, the ash, the char, and the other changes that that brings” Pelant said. “And the invasive plants, typically, the weeds that have been introduced in the last 200-250 years, are not.”

They reintroduced fire here about eight years ago. Managing the restoration process includes seasonal burning. Depending on when you visit PRI’s prairies, you could see a lush blooming meadow in late spring or an ashen field in late summer or fall.

“There’s a flourishing that happens after the burn,” Pelant said. “But if you would have looked at it end of the day last September, you would have seen pretty much just a charred landscape.”

The process takes about a half a day, and it does create a lot of smoke. The fire lines go as close as 20 feet from some of their neighbors. But Pelant said they have great support from the community and have never had a complaint.

The fire is done very professionally,” he said. “They back burn, there’s all sorts of fire breaks, there’s water everywhere. And I have never felt any concern with the crews we’ve used.”

Among the most dazzling of the native species they are recovering is the "Golden Paintbrush, a chunky yellow blossom that now flourishes on the Pacific Rim Institute’s grounds. PRI is collaborating with the US Fish and Wildlife Service to get the Golden Paintbrush off the endangered species lists in Washington, Oregon and British Columbia.

“It’s a native plant that used to be here in great numbers. And there’s so much that they bring to the quality of life, the health of the ecosystem, that we’re not even aware of yet, we haven’t even discovered yet,” Pelant said.

But there are also more practical reasons to restore the prairie.

The prairies sit atop the recharge zone of Whidbey Island’s main aquifer, which feeds wells on the south end of the island and keeps drinking water healthy.

“It serves vital ecosystem functions that most people don’t think of as they drive by,” Pelant said.

Whidbey Island has only about 1 percent of its original prairielands intact, compared to less than 3 percent statewide.

Flowers in the field

Pelant said he would love to see that change, “because they are clearly the most threatened and endangered ecosystems in Washington.”

Even though his work is on land, Pellant said efforts such as the naming of the Salish Sea do play a role in moving it forward.

“I very much like the concept of the Salish Sea, because it takes it from political boundaries to ecological realities,” he said.

“The more we can think in those ecological terms and look at a region like Cascadia or the Salish Sea, it gets us more in line with thinking and discovering and asking questions about things in the context of the way the world works.”

He hopes the Pacific Rim Institute and its restored prairie lands will stand as a lasting reminder to the public of what is possible.

“By demonstrating our work here, by keeping it open to the public, by having trails right through the middle of our work that are open to the public 24/7, we would like to believe that we’re influencing the mindset of the current generation and the next generations to look a little bit differently, a little bit more holistically on the environment in which we live, and understand a few more connections that are beneath the surface,” Pelant said.

Reading List

Robert Pelant's suggested readings: