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Return to the Salish Sea: Prairie Restoration Expert Robert Pelant

Bellamy Pailthorp
Robert Pelant, CEO of the non-profit Pacific Rim Institute on Whidbey Island, showing off some of the threatened Golden Paintbrush, a species they are bringing back by restoring native prairie lands.

When you think of the Salish Sea, the image that first comes to mind probably doesn’t include grassy plains and meadows. But, in fact, the concept of this shared ecosystem that unites the U.S. and Canada extends to the entire basin of the watershed.

A small nonprofit on Whidbey Island is working to restore 175 acres of prairie lands that were once farmlands in the center of the Salish Sea. One technique they use was shunned for centuries.

“The loss of fire here was one of the critical, if not the most critical factor in the degradation of our ecosystems,” says Robert Pelant, Chief Executive Officer of the Pacific Rim Institute in Coupeville.

He says the reintroduction of controlled burns is one of the most effective methods to bring back native plants because they have adapted to them. Invasive plants typically have not.

Among the most dazzling of the native species they are recovering is the Golden Paintbrush, a chunky yellow blossom that now flourishes on the Pacific Rim Institutes grounds. PRI is collaborating with the US Fish and Wildlife Service to get the Golden Paintbrush off the endangered species list.

“It’s a native plant that used to be here in great numbers. And there’s so much that they bring to the quality of life – the health of the ecosystem – that we’re not even aware of yet, we haven’t even discovered yet,” he says.

But there are also more practical reasons to restore the prairie, such as its function atop the recharge zone of Whidbey Island’s main aquifer, which feeds well on the south end of the island and keeps drinking water healthy.

To see pictures and read more about the prairie restoration work at the Pacific Rim Institute, visit our "Return To The Salish Sea" website.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to