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KEEN & The 25th Anniversary of Get Intimate with the Shrub-Steppe25 blogs for 25 years Project By Jill Scheffer, KEEN Founder & President

How did we get here? 25 years is a quarter of a century…a quarter of my life has been spent on founding, growing, nurturing and planning for KEEN’s success. It’s longer than any career I’ve had, any relationship I’ve had (with the obvious exception of my family), and longer than I’ve owned my own home. Yet, the passion I have for KEEN, for getting people outdoors to learn about where they live, for meeting amazing and knowledgeable people (many of whom are writing blogs for this series), and for being inspired by nature, is unending. 

KEEN started 24 years ago (so how do we have an event that is celebrating 25 years?...wait for it), around a breakfast table at the Palace in downtown Ellensburg. Five like-minded individuals chatted, dreamed, and planned…and KEEN was born. We discussed the lack of local knowledge about the shrub-steppe, the lack of places to go to learn and engage, and the lack of science-based outdoor-led education in our region. We joined the WA State environmental education organization (later it became e3), and started meeting amazing people. We attended conferences, applied for 501c3 status, and created opportunities to get outside.

The first opportunity we created was Get Intimate with the Shrub-Steppe (GISS). We thought we were pretty clever…the event name still gets a chuckle from people who hear it for the first time. We called up our friends who were doing cool things - mostly professors from CWU like Dr. Dan Beck, Nick Zentner, and Dr. Lixing Sun - and invited them to lead field trips at Umtanum Creek Recreation Area in the Yakima River Canyon. Dan would take people into the hills and show them where rattlesnakes lived, capture one or two, and demystify the animals for the gathered crowds. Nick would chat about how the canyon formed and why basalt rocks form those fascinating columnar structures. Lixing would share stories about beavers and how they transform the landscape and support all kinds of life in riparian areas. 

That first GISS event was held in the fall…and it was kind of a disaster. We quickly realized that we couldn't have a native plants field trip because all the plants were dead/dormant already. We also realized that all the passerines that Umtanum is so famous for were preparing to leave and migrate to their winter homes in the fall. They had mated and taken care of their offspring all spring and summer. They weren’t singing or showing bright colors to get ready for mating season as they would in spring.

To say the event fell flat would be an understatement. But KEENers are nothing but creative and nimble…so we picked ourselves up and planned for the event again that next spring. 

So…that’s why we are celebrating the 25th anniversary of an event, even though KEEN is only 24 years old.

GISS has grown, shrunken, changed, been reinvented, and gone through some major challenges over the last 24 years. KEEN nearly folded in 2006 when the board was lacking energy to keep the organization going. I came back to the presidency in 2006 and helped to revitalize the organization with some other dedicated folks. Over the years we have, no joke, endured every possible weather combination; snow, hail, 50 mph winds, rain, 80 degree heat, and really lovely May weather. But throughout it all, the message has stayed the same: the shrub-steppe is a super cool place to be, live, and learn about! 

This year, for our 25th anniversary, we are asking our field trip leaders and area experts to share their thoughts with you about the shrub-steppe, about their particular interest area, and about their hopes for this endangered habitat. We’re working on 25 blogs to celebrate this amazing place before this year’s event on the weekend of May 10-12. You’ll be reading about snakes, geology, climate, land use, fire, economy, health, and so much more. It will be like a mini course in thinking globally and acting locally. My hope is that each blog will leave you feeling inspired to engage even more.

Some of the blogs might be a bit depressing. I’ve seen estimates that as little as 12% of functional shrub-steppe habitat still exists over its range in North America. It is doing a little better in Washington State, where maybe as much as 20% is protected under state or federal ownership. The outlook is dire, but the people who will be featured in these blogs are creative, tenacious, and committed…if anyone can help this landscape it is them. 

KEEN’s mission, rewritten a couple of years ago, is to cultivate an active understanding of the impacts of climate change on the endangered shrub-steppe and foster commitment to environmental stewardship by providing culturally relevant nature-based education. We live that mission every day through our work to restore shrub-steppe habitat and recreational access at Helen McCabe Park, through our outdoor environmental education camps and adventures for K-12 kiddos, and through our life-long-learning opportunities like GISS. Our amazing Board of Directors is working towards our long-term goal of establishing the Yakima Canyon Interpretive Center (YCIC) at Helen McCabe Park soon.

We recently received $700,000 towards infrastructure and planning for YCIC and you will start to see improvements going in this spring. Our belief is that we can use YCIC as a tool to promote understanding and appreciation of the shrub-steppe and to bring together energetic people to help save, restore, and support this endangered habitat. Collaborating with great minds and collectively planning with local, state, and federal agencies, private landowners and businesses, and committed nonprofit entities is the only way we can succeed. 

My hope is that you will read and absorb these blogs that follow - that they will inspire you to engage, support, and act. We need your energy, encouragement, enthusiasm, and to be blunt, your money. Most of the organizations working to do good things are nonprofits. Yes, we partner with state and federal agencies, but keeping the lights on and the doors open also means we need steady income. Enroll your kiddos in camps, attend our programs, come to our fundraising events, and send us a check once and a while.

I hope to see you in May at GISS - registration opens in February so keep an eye out on our website or follow us on social media. You’ll get to meet many of the bloggers in their elements - hiking to see the amazing spring passerines, looking up close at threatened pacific lamprey, and showing off the spring wildflowers that dot the hillsides of the shrub-steppe hills that surround us. You won’t want to miss out!

Register for GISS here:


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