Garry oak and Camas meadows: Replenishing the landscape

Everybody plays a part in learning the lessons.

In 2023, the Friends of Cortes Island and Linnaea Farm Society released a short film, documenting the restoration of the Dillon Creek Watershed in Klahoose, Tla’amin, and Homalco Territories. It is called Replenish, based on the words of Jessie Louie, Klahoose Elder and Language Keeper, who says in the film:  “Keeping our language alive is very important. The only way anything survives is if you keep it going, if you keep on replenishing it, if you keep on feeding it, if you keep on speaking it.” These words are representative of the deep connection between so many Coast Salish languages and the landscapes from which they emerged. Further, they are representative of the incredible diversity and abundance of those landscapes as a result of Indigenous stewardship over millennia prior to colonization. 

Though Replenish is about wetland restoration, which really could not be more different from woodland and meadow restoration, Jessie Louie’s words of survival through attention, stewardship, and replenishment are a testament to the connection between people and place. 

There is no one without the other.

Earlier this year, I was privileged to attend two gatherings aimed at exploring the legacy and future of Garry oak woodlands and Camas meadowsーecosystems that are distinctly cultural. They are some of the highest biodiversity and most at-risk terrestrial ecosystems in  British Columbia. Though once abundant throughout the range of what is presently referred to as the Coastal Douglas-fir biogeoclimatic zone, they have been reduced to a tiny fraction of their historic extent. This is largely due to rampant development and Indigenous land alienation, which continues to this day. Though European newcomers described southeastern Vancouver Island and the nearby Gulf Islands as a “perfect Eden” upon their arrival, the habitat fragmentation and degradation that followed were inconsistent with the reverence for place that their initial observations implied. 

A purple camas
Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

The first gathering, a three-day assembly on Salt Spring Island in early April 2023, titled Honoring the stories of the past present and future: Indigenizing the restoration of ecocultural meadows in the Salish Sea, advocated for changing the way the non-Indigenous community refers to, and understands “Garry oak and associated ecosystems.” The name “Camas meadows” was presented as a more appropriate alternative in recognition of their status as ecocultural landscapes, managed as food gardens for generations. This change in naming conventions is not just a shift in language, but a shift in perception. It demonstrates the need for approaches to restoration as old as the land and all her ecologies. What restoration experts like Dr. Jennifer Grenz and Judith Lynn Arney call relational or relationship-based restoration

We spent the days sitting in a circle, listening to one another, sharing meals together, and building connections, the watery early spring light pouring into the room through tall windows. This community space provided time for Quw’utsun, W̱SÁNEĆ, and Penelakut Elders and community members to share their stories and teachings of place and reimagine a future in which the care of land is informed by the people who come from the land, just as it had been for generations prior to colonization. 

A person facing away from the camera, writing on a large piece of white paper with a hand-drawn map.
The gathering on Salt Spring Island was organized by Dr. Tara Martin’s Conservation Decisions Lab at the University of British Columbia in partnership with Dr. Jennifer Grenz, Dr. Briony Penn, and Jessie Hemphill. Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

Months later, in October 2023, the Garry oak Ecosystem Recovery Team (GOERT) hosted their first day-long conference since 2019. Taking an academic approach to the understanding of Camas meadows and associated ecosystems, the GOERT conference featured an impressive agenda of presenters including researchers and restoration practitioners. During breaks attendees perused a collection of poster submissions,  including one from Raincoast’s Forest Conservation Program highlighting the Story of the CDF, a collection we have been assembling from a community of contributors over the past two years. 

The conference also provided opportunities for attendees to participate in optional field trips to visit local meadow ecosystems in three sites around Songees, Esquimalt, and W̱SÁNEĆ Territories. I was lucky enough to visit Trial Island, where a multi-year restoration effort under the leadership of conservation scientist, Matt Fairbains, is ongoing. As we arrived on the shores of the island, dozens of seals hauled themselves into the Salish Sea, leaving the sand warm and steaming in the cold morning air. Though the meadows of the island were dormant for the cold season, the beauty and diversity of the place were still vividly apparent.

A brown self heal flower.
Self heal (Prunella vulgaris ssp. lanceolata) on Trial Island. Photo by Shauna Doll.
Two sea thrift flowers.
Sea thrift (Armeria maritima) on Trial Island. Photo by Shauna Doll.

Though the approach to each gathering was very different, two common threads wove them together: 1) Camas meadows and associated ecosystems are locations of rare abundance and 2) the rapid loss of these ecologies has been (and continues to be) dramatic and traumatic. In a region where private land is dominant, and development has been escalating decade over decade, it is often only through grassroots conservation efforts and Indigenous leadership that pockets of these precious places are spared from destruction. Often this looks like small groups of people turning up to a construction site in the twilight of a spring evening to salvage Camas bulbs from the wreckage of a bulldozed ecosystem before it is paved over and transformed into another  condo building.

In entreating the audience to pay attention to yet another ecological loss on the brink of occurring, one presenter at the GOERT conference poetically stated: “If past is prologue, then a tragedy is unfolding here.” This is assuredly correct if we continue to make status-quo land-use decisions. However, if we can learn from the past, we can move toward a better future together, where land and habitats are relational, and deep connections and respect guide the replenishment of place.

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Research scientist, Adam Warner conducting genetics research in our genetics lab.
Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation.