Get access

Historic Anthropogenically Maintained Bear Grass Savannas of the Southeastern Olympic Peninsula


Address correspondence to David Peter, email


This paper documents the existence and character of a little known fire-maintained anthropogenic ecosystem in the southeastern Olympic Peninsula of Washington State, U.S.A. Due to cessation of anthropogenic burning, there is no longer an intact example of this ecosystem. We present evidence from Skokomish oral tradition, historical documents, floral composition, tree-ring analysis, stand structure, and site potential to describe former savanna structure and function. We believe this system was a mosaic of prairies, savannas, and woodlands in a forest matrix maintained through repeated burning to provide culturally important plants and animals. The overstory was dominated by Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii). Bear grass (Xerophyllum tenax) likely was a dominant understory component of the savannas, woodlands, and prairie edges. These lands grew forests in the absence of anthropogenic burning. Wide spacing of older trees or stumps in former stands and rapid invasion by younger trees in the late 1800s and early 1900s suggest a sudden change in stand structure. Shade-intolerant prairie species are still present where openings have been maintained but not in surrounding forests. Bark charcoal, fire scars, tree establishment patterns, and oral traditions point to use of fire to maintain this system. A common successional trajectory for all these lands leads to forested vegetation. These findings suggest that frequent application of prescribed burning would be necessary to restore this ecosystem.