The shrub steppe is a unique environment and home to many species of plants and animals. The contrasting scent of sweet sagebrush and dry dust mingle in the air, wafting over a land bursting with hidden life. Under the radiant sun, creatures stir and wake to forage, hunt, nest, and feed. Tough plants dominate the sandy soil, competing for valuable moisture and rare space. In ground between the wiry bushes, scrubby bunch grass spreads. Old forbs, dry and dead, cover the middle of each of the patches of tender green framed by shrubbery. Rustles in the sand-colored mass of stalks indicate rodents nestling down in snug burrows packed with soft bedding.
KEEN has been stewarding, restoring, and educating about this fertile world of wildlife, specialized plants, rolling low hills, and harsh beauty for the last 20 years. We love this endangered habitat of ours, and we work hard to bring awareness and enjoyment of it to as many others as possible. Over the years we have celebrated the shrub-steppe with annual events, guided field trips with local experts, and more.
But KEEN’s most ambitious project, by far, has been the 16-year effort to restore and rejuvenate Helen McCabe Memorial State Park, just five miles south of Ellensburg. Our ultimate goal is to construct an interpretive center there, but in the meantime, we have focused on restoration and recreation improvements.
Helen McCabe Memorial State Park is a former gravel borrow pit and an undeveloped state property. In 2004 by circumstance and synchronicity, KEEN came upon the park and identified it as a potential site for our planned Yakima Canyon Interpretive Center (YCIC). We signed a lease agreement with State Parks for 30-years and have been caring for it ever since.
Since 2004, KEEN has worked to re-establish native plant communities, build trails, teach outdoor classes, and expand the use and stewardship of the park. This park space is also a hub for much of our outreach in the greater Kittitas County area. We are currently negotiating an additional 50-year lease renewal that will allow us to manage the park in its entirety and move towards returning ecosystem functionality and ecological services on this property on the outskirts of Ellensburg WA.
Located at the ‘bottom of the bathtub’ of the Yakima River Valley in Kittitas County, the park is home to critical ecosystem services; every drop of water in the valley filters through and under the park. Notably the park is home to substantial aquifer recharge areas, wetlands, riparian and floodplain habitat, stately ponderosa pines, and re-introduced native plant habitats.
KEEN is working to bring this area back to functionality through our all-volunteer work on invasive species management, floodplain roughening, native planting, and involvement of our community in restoration and recreation activities.
KEEN believes there are significant social and cultural benefits to functioning ecosystems and we work hard to increase the public use of the park by building trails, hosting work parties, offering outdoor schools, summer nature camps, and naturalist-led field trips.
Our ultimate goal is to establish the Yakima Canyon Interpretive Center at the park as it is the northern-most gateway to the oldest state scenic byway in Washington. The Canyon, and Central Washington in general, is home to endangered shrub-steppe habitat that hosts sage grouse, shrub-steppe obligate mammals, birds and reptiles, iconic bighorn sheep, an important bird area (IBA) for passerines, a diverse number of raptor species, and the adjacent Yakima River with endangered salmonid stocks.
This is a restoration project adjacent to where many of Washington citizens work and play.
As the effects of climate change continue to manifest in our region – evidenced by lower snow pack and higher rainfall – KEEN’s efforts in this area become ever more appropriate. As we watch our endangered habitat become devalued and fragmented, the urgency of our work becomes more evident. We believe that it is our ethical and moral duty to educate and engage our community in its own environmental future and having a restored area with ecosystem services, offering stepping-stone connectivity within the Yakima corridor, is a big part of that future. We believe that having protected and rehabilitated areas on the edge of town are critical to connecting our community to nature, effecting change, and eliciting behavioral changes.
Although the size of the park is small, the impact of this project is huge. With over 1.5 million people driving past this park on an annual basis (WSDOT Traffic Study 2018), we have an unparalleled opportunity to communicate important ecological information, provide a place to engage and reflect, and create a functioning ecosystem that provides true ecological function.
We currently have a $43,000 grant from the WA State Department of Fish and Wildlife to design and construct a large picnic shelter, extend our trail system, and create a child-centered outdoor play classroom at the park. We are seeking matching funds for this grant to ensure that we can meet the needs and increase the recreational potential of Helen McCabe Memorial State Park.