Fire and water have shaped the Columbia Highlands.

Low-intensity wildfires have regularly shaped the dry terrain for centuries. They clear out shrubs and dead wood and leave behind thick-barked fire-resistant old growth ponderosa pine, larch and Douglas-fir. Fires also create openings in the forest for flower-rich meadows and aspen islands.

Slight changes in elevation, orientation, amount of sunlight, soil composition and landform cause dramatic variations in moisture. Pacific Ocean weather systems wrung dry by the North Cascades by the time they reach the western edge of Columbia Highlands build up moisture again before they slam into the Rockies.The extreme western edge of the Columbia Highlands in the Kettle Range receives as little as 10 inches of moisture a year, whereas, farther east, over 50 inches of precipitation soak the Selkirk Mountains, the wettest spot in eastern Washington.

The result is a complex mosaic of habitats.

Grasslands and shrub-steppe blanket the warm, dry, lower elevations. As the elevation increases, open, parklike stands of ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir give way to a mixed-conifer forest of hemlock, grand fir, white pine and western larch. At the highest elevations, subalpine parklands of Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir thrive in the long-lasting snows of winter.

As a transition zone between the Cascades and Rocky Mountains, the Columbia Highlands provide perfect topography for a rich spectrum of plant and animal life. However, because less than 4% of Washington’s Wilderness acres lie east of the Cascades, many of these uniquely “dry side” habitats remain underrepresented in the Wilderness system.


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