At this time of year, we may not see it as often as we’d like, but sunshine is one of the best things about life in the Kittitas Valley. For thousands of years, it’s helped make this place a good one to be. The wind, too, makes the valley what it is. The terrain and soil and water have made it a place filled with life—from the native plants and animals to the people who lived well here for knowing them.
In the 19th century, people with different life ways came to know the valley in new ways. The beauty of the place was stunning. In the varied landscape they saw what they called sagebrush and bunchgrass steppe in the drier places, and tall grasses in the lower places with more moisture. The streams and river were fringed with cottonwood, willow, and aspen. They found stands of pine and, higher up, conifer forests in the folds where the valley meets the foothills of the mountains.
Different ways of living with the sunshine, the wind, the land and the water have sustained life here for people, plants, and animals since time immemorial. Settlers valued nature in the Kittitas Valley for different reasons than did the people who lived here before. That brought dramatic change. The native bunchgrasses and open range valued by the early ranchers were not what the settler farmers needed most. The value of the Yakima River changed as irrigated agriculture became the basis for the economy. Today, the sunshine and the wind are valued in new ways, as the potential for their capture to generate energy entices developers. The ways we know and value nature here are always in flux. If there’s one thing we all have in common, people and nature alike, it’s that we must deal with change.
To find what we have in common as change comes to the Kittitas Valley, we need to know nature, which is what keeps us alive and well in this place. To make good decisions together, we need to learn where our water comes from, what makes the wind blow, why and how wildlife live here, how the Cascade and Rocky Mountains, the Pacific Ocean, and the Arctic cause the weather, how and why wildfires burn in different landscapes, and how the Valley fits into the bigger picture of natural life in places beyond. These things are important to all of us here in one way or another and we need to listen to each other to understand why.
Today, it may seem that differences divide us. It’s not easy to find common ground. This makes it hard to make important decisions about how to deal with change and development that will affect the environment and our community. Learning how life is sustained in our valley and how all our neighbors live with nature is crucial to living well together. Knowing what we all have in common because we value this place may be the most important thing we can do to protect our Valley, our interests, and our lives as our world changes.
We are lucky to live where we have many opportunities to get to know our neighbors and the natural world. KEEN works to provide these. Come to KEEN’s 19th annual “Get Intimate with the Shrub Steppe” event on May 12 at the Umtanum Creek Recreation Area to enjoy field trips and educational displays for adults and kids alike. Our second Yakima River Canyon Bird Fest will take place May 11 to 13. It offers three days of field trips, lectures and speakers, social events and music and, of course, bird watching. In summer we offer the Pond to Pines outdoor day camp for kids from first through ninth grades. Registration is open now. For more information on these opportunities and other KEEN events and initiatives, including our Yakima Canyon Interpretive Center, visit www.ycic.org. You can also join us for KEEN’s next quarterly meeting at 6 p.m. Jan. 27 at the Heritage Center at the Kittitas Valley Event Center to learn more and find out how to get involved.
Stefanie Wickstrom has been on the KEEN board since 2008 and serves as treasurer. KEEN Connects is a monthly column produced by Kittitas Environmental Education Network (KEEN) board members and volunteers. For more information, go to www.ycic.org.