Fire protects camas plants, cultural resource in forest

A fire set last week in a national forest prairie will help bring new life to the camas plants that remain there.

The U.S. Forest Service, in conjunction with the Bureau of Land Management , Oregon State University, private, contractors, Lane Community College and the Siletz and Grande Ronde Indian nations, has been working since 1996 on restoring a camas prairie wetland located about a mile east of Cascadia Cave, just north of the South Santiam River near the Molalla Trail.

Last week, the prairie was burned for the second time to discourage encroachment by Oregon Ash and blackberries into the prairie where they threaten the camas, which was a staple of Native Americans in the area. The first burn was in 1998.

Native Americans would bake camas bulbs in earth ovens for two to four days, press them into cakes and dry them in the sun. The cakes were later ground into mash and used in a variety of food staples.

In the mid to late 1800s, the site was homesteaded. Activities included haying and logging in and around the area. More recently, the prairie had been used as a dispersed camping site.

The Forest Service acquired the site in 1994, and Sweet Home Ranger District Botanist Alice Smith found that camas still survived, with ash and blackberries threatening its survival.

In 1996, seeds were gathered from the site to grow camas bulbs. The following year, the Siletz Indian Nation provided youth crews to remove the invading ash and blackberries and to help gather more seed. Vegetation plots were installed to determine the density of camas plants prior to treatment, and cultural resource surveys were initiated.

In 1998, additional cultural resource inventorying was completed, more seed collected and an abandoned road through the site bermed. A prescribed burn was set in September 1998.

The efforts, removal of the invasive species and the fires themselves, are aimed at improving the production the production of the camas, Donna Short of the Sweet Home Ranger District said. “It’ll green up very well.”

Twenty-seven persons from the Siletz and Grande Ronde tribes and the Detroit and Sweet Home ranger districts were involved in the burn on Sept. 27.

The long-term goal is for Native Americans to hold ceremonial harvests in the field as a part of the Forest Service’s cultural resource preservation efforts.

“Camas was the carbohydrate staple of Northwest tribes,” Sweet Home Ranger District Archaeologist Tony Farqué said. The baking process turned the bulbs into a “tasty and easily digestible high energy form of nutrition.”

A Native American elder brought baked camas bulbs with him last week to the burn where visitors were able to sample them. The bulbs were sweet, reminiscent of licorice or molasses.

Baked into cakes 12 to 15 inches across and about three inches thick, camas became a primary trade item for local Indians, especially at gatherings at Oregon Falls, near Oregon City, Farqué said. Different families had many different ways to prepare the camas. Native Americans would often add honey, dried berries, dried fruit, seeds and even dried grasshoppers to the mix.

They would save camas cakes in the rafters of their long houses to provide for the winter. In the rafters, they would be protected from mold, and smoke from fires would keep them dry.

In the last three years, there has been a five-fold increase in camas production in the prairie, Farqué said. “The goal now is to have enough camas to provide the opportunity for the first ceremonial harvest in 150 years.”

Farqué expects that ceremonial harvest to take place as early as next summer. Over the next year, there will be an oven constructed for the event.