The South Puget Sound Prairies

Fire, Ice, and Human Hands

Dale Rutledge and his family settled on a prairie created by glaciers, maintained by fire and long cultivated by human hands. Farming the grasslands of the South Puget Sound, he joined a tradition of land stewardship that has lasted thousands of years.

The South Sound grasslands were formed 14,000 years ago by the advance and retreat of the Vashon Glacier. Creeping southward from British Columbia, the glacier scoured deep channels as far as Olympia, excavating the Puget Sound and covering what is now Seattle in 3,000 feet of ice. South of the Sound, the glacier’s retreat created flat lowlands and mounded plains and well-drained soils, which were pioneered by prairie plants.

The Upper Chehalis people carefully cultivated the plants that thrived in the dry, gravelly, outwash soils. They set frequent, low-intensity fires – what today’s conservationists call prescribed burns – to support the prairie ecosystem. Fire not only maintained the prairie edge and cultivated the growth of food crops, fibers and medicinal plants, it also preserved the grasslands for herds of elk, birds and butterflies, lizards and bees – the entire compliment of prairie species.

The Chehalis maintained the abundance of the South Puget Sound prairies by learning and passing on, from generation to generation, the skills and knowledge needed to take care of the place they called home. They knew its soils and seasons. They knew the qualities and uses of every plant. They were masters of sustainable harvests, gathering abundant crops each year for millennia. They practiced a very sophisticated form of stewardship, which supported a rich, satisfying way of life. In today’s terms they were brilliant botanists and land managers, and their relationship with the prairie created a landscape enriched by their care.

A Unique and Imperiled Landscape

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