top of page

My Shrub Steppe Love Affair By Andrea Crawford, Puget Sound Energy

While I grew up in Central Washington, I wasn’t intimately introduced to the shrub steppe until I moved to Ellensburg. Our family farm in the lower Yakima Valley was situated in what was once a vast expanse of shrub steppe, but irrigation and cultivation had erased it from the valley floor. Despite the magnificent spring time blooms, we recreated elsewhere, choosing instead to travel to the forests of the Cascades. The shrub steppe was just something you drove by, covering the hillsides that were too steep or rocky to farm. My only childhood memories of these areas were yellow flowers desperately clinging to the basalt walls above Highway 97.

Many early explorers, writers, and politicians have referred to this landscape as “harsh”, “barren”, “desolate”, and “a vast wasteland”, looking only for ways to convert it into something deemed useful by humans. As a result, over 60% of the shrub steppe in Washington has disappeared, replaced by houses, fields, and businesses. “Progress!” they said, but for the plants and animals that make up this diverse ecosystem, it can be a death sentence. Sage grouse, a shrub steppe obligate species, has seen steady declines since early settlers described their great numbers in the Kittitas Valley. Conversion of their habitat and recent intense and frequent wildfires have wiped out much of their territory, accelerating their spiral towards localized extinction.

So how do we stop this trend of undervaluing this landscape and developing it at a rapid rate? Education? Policy?  We need to slow down, and Get Intimate with the Shrub Steppe! KEEN has known for many years that immersing people in the landscape, where they can learn and see its unique attributes and diversity, is a key component to fostering an understanding and appreciation of the shrub steppe. Many people share my childhood experience, having only driven by what they assume is a monotonous and monochromatic landscape, and events like GISS can foster a connection to this ecosystem. You cannot generate an appreciation for the shrub steppe at freeway speeds!

My love for the shrub steppe began at Central Washington University in a Biogeography class. Outside of the lectures, classwork consisted of transcribing early survey notes of the valley, which depending on the penmanship of said surveyor, was an arduous task. However, it provided a snapshot of what the Kittitas Valley looked like before irrigation and agriculture, and an important lesson in regards to human impact on the landscape; the very foundation of the Geography degree I was working towards. Later in the quarter, Professor Alan Sullivan dragged us out on a field trip to a WDFW parking lot on the Vantage Highway. There was likely much grumbling, as we were disgruntled college students, and had been assigned to memorize a list of native plants. Despite studying the paper list for days, seeing the plants in person changed everything. We sat in the sun on the hillside, surrounded by the plants we had been studying, including the first Basalt Cactus I had ever laid eyes on! Suddenly the startling amount of detail and differences between each plant became apparent. This was no monotonous landscape. There was texture and color everywhere!

Later, my studies at CWU led me to apply for an internship at the Wild Horse Wind Facility, which provided an opportunity to continue to immerse myself in this ecosystem. Early in my internship, prior to one of our Wildflower and Wind Power Walks, I met botanist Don Knoke. I was astounded to learn that he was in his early 90s, and still traipsing across the hillsides, naming off plants in Latin as he went.

Surprisingly spry for his age, I was constantly two steps behind him, trying to look up the common names of the plants he was identifying in rapid succession. He was a walking encyclopedia! Hiking with Don began to open my eyes to the plethora of plant species and their minute differences. Others from the Washington Native Plant Society, like Ron Bockleman, patiently answered my multitudes of questions, and tolerated my terrible non-botanist plant descriptions. We need more Dons and Rons in the world! The numerous guides and speakers leading the upcoming Get Intimate with the Shrub Steppe sessions are also people who generously share their time and knowledge, and can fascinate and engage newcomers to the shrub steppe.

Now I do most of my shrub steppe wandering by myself, in lonesome places. I can take a deep sage scented breath and reconnect with my sanity after a stressful day. While a bit cliché now that it is plastered over signs and T-shirts everywhere, John Muir’s quote still rings true, “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks”. I often jokingly call my after work hikes “mental health walks”, but they really are. Nothing grounds me more than time spent in nature, listening to the wind whipping through the grasses, meadowlarks declaring their territory, or the trickling of an ephemeral stream. There have been a multitude of moments on these walks that have cemented my bond with the shrub steppe. Hiking with the wind blowing my hair vertically, fully experiencing the harsh, unforgiving, and literally breath taking fury of late winter; sitting on a hillside in a spring blizzard, watching a bull elk shake his head in irritation as snow blew into his ear, then bucking and rearing out of frustration, or maybe in joy, because despite the snow, spring was on its way; watching a cougar through binoculars, admiring its sleek stealth as it wove through the sage, easily vanishing in just a moment. The first time I hiked Umtanum Ridge, I encountered insects skewered on the branches of a shrub. I thought, “What kind of sick weirdo does that?!” Upon Googling my query once I returned home, I discovered that the sick weirdo in question, was a butcher bird (shrike), just stashing a snack for later. The shrub steppe never fails to leave me feeling full of wonder or curiosity!

We have all, at some point, laughed about the name “Get Intimate with the Shrub Steppe”. I remember being perplexed the first time I saw a GISS bumper sticker on a car in Ellensburg. I wondered “What kind of town did I move to?!” After retrieving my mind from the gutter, I really considered, what does intimate mean? To be closely acquainted; familiar, or close. So the next time you are out in the shrub steppe, get down, look closely, and become intimately familiar with the wonders that it contains. Stop to admire the intricate spiral of a lupine flower and its palmate leaves reaching out to capture droplets of dew. Contemplate the calming silvery blue-green color of Rigid Sage leaves as they first emerge in the spring. The beauty of the shrub steppe is in the details.  

To see the value and the beauty of the shrub steppe you have to get out and get IN it! Truly getting intimate with the shrub steppe. This is what KEEN does so well. Each year they have drawn in more and more people to explore the intricacies of this landscape through educational booths, field trips, speakers, art, and poetry. A bunchgrass-root movement, born from a love of a diminishing ecosystem and the desire to share that love with others. We hope to see you at GISS, May 10-12th!

Event details are here:

1 Comment

Apr 26

Love the bunchgrass-root movement!

I lived in a canyon surrounded by shrub steppe but I really learned to love it driving the old Vantage Highway to go to CWU when we lived in Vantage for a year. Seeing burrowing owls on the old telephone line, spotting the hot pink flowers of basalt cactus, and watching the winter elk herds are extra special memories.

Featured Posts
Recent Posts
Search By Tags
No tags yet.
Follow Us
  • Facebook Basic Square
  • Twitter Basic Square
  • Google+ Basic Square
bottom of page