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Earth Day Adventures at JBLM Earth Day Adventures at JBLM
23 May 2024

Earth Day Adventures at JBLM



In honor of Earth Day this year, I had the amazing opportunity to visit one of the installations I’ve been researching for the past 4 months. Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM) is a 90,000-acre installation in the south Puget Sound region of Washington State. While I was there, I got to participate in an Oregon vesper sparrow survey (a bird species currently being petitioned for listing under ESA), walked along endless rows of a seed farm, and went Streaked horned lark and Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly hunting. One of the highlights of the trip was getting to explore a handful of their highly vulnerable yet extremely beautiful prairies set against a jaw-dropping backdrop of Mount Rainier. Having never been to any military installation before, I was taken aback by the expansive beauty of JBLM (and have hundreds of prairie pictures to prove it). 

Prairies were a once bountiful ecosystem covering almost 150,000 acres in the Puget Sound. They had been maintained by Indigenous burning practices, which helped prevent the establishment of woody vegetation like Douglas firs, contributed to nutrient cycling in the soil, and supported the growth of fire-adapted native vegetation. However, as Euro-American colonization of Western lands introduced invasive species and limited burning, prairies have been degraded and reduced to just about 3% of their original range. 

Presently, JBLM is an important ecological conservation site because it contains approximately 90% of the last prairie ecosystems in the entire south Puget Sound region. The dramatic reduction in healthy, available prairie habitat has had cascading negative repercussions on numerous species, including the Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly (Endangered), Streaked horned lark (Threatened), and the Mazama pocket gopher (Threatened). 

In addition, prairies and their dependent species are at risk of continual degradation and decline due to climate change, especially as air temperatures are projected to increase and affect precipitation, drought, and wildfire conditions in the area. During my trip to JBLM, land managers and biologists had already begun expressing concerns that their prescribed fire window was shrinking, even though this time of year had historically been ideal for performing burns due to cooler climatic conditions. Now, this trend of drier soils/vegetation, less precipitation, and higher air temperatures earlier in the year will more than likely influence the efficacy of and ability to perform management practices that have worked under historically cooler and wetter climates. 

While climate change will pose some serious concerns for the future of natural resources at JBLM, I was honestly inspired to see the cooperation, resiliency, and innovation of the team working at the installation. For example, I was particularly fascinated with one solution to combat drought in prairie soils. While prairies have been struggling to hold onto moisture, oak trees retain a lot of moisture belowground. So, their solution was to begin migrating and/or establishing prairies into oak woodland habitats so that prairie vegetation can take advantage of the soil moisture that oaks provide. Not only is this a stellar example of climate resiliency, but is also a creative way to get prairies to resemble a makeshift savanna structure, creating similar ecosystem functionality as historical prairies. 

Ultimately, my trip to JBLM helped contextualize the work I’ve been doing this year while also revitalizing my excitement for my involvement in the effort to emphasize the importance of climate resiliency and adaptation. Witnessing a collaborative dedication towards meeting the military mission while also understanding the importance of the ecosystems that require management also gave me hope for the future of conservation, even extending beyond military lands. 



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