TAHOLAH (March, 25, 2005) – Bear grass has been used in tribal basket weaving on the Olympic coast of Washington for centuries. Opportunities to gather bear grass, however, are dwindling on the Olympic Peninsula. Traditional bear grass areas have been converted to commercial forest, eliminating the open space habitat that bear grass prefers. Improper harvest techniques by a rapidly increasing forest products industry are also taking a toll – resulting in no re-growth of bear grass. Finally, a key ingredient in the plant’s life cycle is missing: fire.
“We believe that tribes kept these bear grass areas flourishing by burning them,” said Daniela Shebitz, a researcher from the University of Washington who is working with Justine James, Quinault Indian Nation timber/fish/wildlife cultural specialist, to preserve and enhance bear grass habitat. Shebitz’s goal is to show the importance of reintroducing traditional land management practices to restore culturally important resources.
Charlotte Kalama, Quinault Indian Nation (QIN) elder and renowned basket maker, has experienced difficulty getting bear grass for a number of years. “My husband used to get it for me, but it’s hard to find now,” said Kalama, 83, who lives in Queets. When she does get bear grass, it’s usually the result of QIN law enforcement seizing illegally harvested plants from forest product workers, a growing problem on the QIN reservation. Kalama was one of several elders who alerted James to the growing shortage of the spiky-bladed member of the lily family.
Bear grass is usually found at elevations above 4,000 feet, however a lowland species is only found in forests and bogs on the southwest Olympic Peninsula and parts of South Puget Sound. “Some of my professors were floored when I sent them a picture of bear grass next to skunk cabbage and camas, typical lowland bog and wetland plants,” said Shebitz.
Shebitz, James, and a crew of QIN firemen created several different growing environments in the bogs on QIN lands to test the effect of fire and other plant competition on bear grass. Several control plots with no alterations are also being monitored.
Some areas with existing bear grass were burned to monitor the plant’s reaction to fire. Re-growth was seen in the first month after burning. Other plots without bear grass were burned and then seeded, while still others were not burned and seeded. Results of the various growth differences will be monitored. Shebitz is also attempting to grow bear grass in a greenhouse.
Shebitz and James were aided in their efforts by using an Olympic National Forest (ONF) vegetation map created as part of spotted owl habitat assessments to create the project “The vegetation map was very helpful, in combination with local knowledge, in setting up this project,” said Shebitz.
James believes QIN members historically used the area as part of a travel route from the coast over the Olympic Mountains. “They might have burned it as part of their travels, maybe on their return.” Along with learning the optimum conditions for this particular bear grass to grow, James will gather soil samples to determine what areas were burned historically.
“The elders have also told us that bear grass is more pliable when it grows back after it is burned,” said Shebitz, who has conducted a variety of traditional plant research. “I think one of the best things about this project is the wedding of traditional knowledge and science. Too frequently, that isn’t the case.”
QIN elders were suspicious about the project in the beginning, said James. “In the past, so much information was taken from them, often for the profit of others, and they didn’t get anything back. This time, they will get something back – a way to perpetuate bear grass.”
For more information, contact: Debbie Ross-Preston, information officer, NWIFC, (360) 374-5501.