Prairie Burns Return to Quinault

What fire burns becomes new. It’s a land management principle used by Quinault Indian Nation (QIN) people for thousands of years.

In addition to using fire to manage reservation timberlands, QIN plans to use burns to maintain important habitat for cultural plants on Moses Prairie northwest of Lake Quinault.

A $64,000 Washington Coast Restoration Initiative grant, facilitated through the state Recreation and Conservation Office and acquired by QIN Natural Resources director Dave Bingaman, will fund the estimated 20-acre Moses Prairie burn as well as educational outreach.

“This is a pilot project to provide understanding of traditional management of the six prairies on the reservation by the Quinault people,” Bingaman said. “We believe each prairie had specific uses and are trying to capture historical information to provide future guidance on prairie management.”

Quinault people used fire to maintain camas and beargrass for thousands of years, said Justine James, Quinault cultural resources specialist. Camas is the purple flower of the prairies that has been used as food and medicine by tribes.

Burning often occurred twice a year. A light burn in spring cleared away vegetation that prevented camas and other plants from thriving. A second burn in the fall removed accumulated duff.

“The fall burn had the control of rain that would usually occur within days,” James said. “The Quinaults of the time had a much better understanding of the weather patterns. With no private property ownership issues, there wasn’t the fear of burning someone’s property and needing to pay for lost resources.”

Management burns ended in the late 1800s, around the time treaties were signed creating reservation boundaries, according to fire history and ecological restoration research.

Land adjacent to the tribe’s reservation was homesteaded by non-tribal people, further preventing tribal access to the prairie.

“I found one story of a family that would move every summer for one month out to the prairie to harvest beargrass in particular, as well as huckleberries and other plants,” James said.

He is hopeful that the prescribed burn this fall may spur growth of dormant beargrass, a sought-after plant used for baskets, as well as huckleberries.