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Prairie Restoration: No Patch of Ground too Small

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How Our Ecosystem Depends on the Prairies

A Look at the Small-Scale Prairie Movement

A Restored Prairie. Photo Courtesy of Western Michigan UniversityMore each year, we are reminded of the critical importance of species diversity. Nature never puts just one species in a spot, even a square inch of soil, and this is a valuable lesson for farmers, conservationists and homeowners alike.

A movement of do-it-yourself prairie restorationists is catching on as well. Native prairie grassland, which once covered 600,000 square miles of the US, contributed natural drought tolerance, soil-building fertility and organic matter, vast wildlife refuges that supported thousands of species, and a complex gene pool in which several plant species would always thrive in the conditions of the moment, even when many of their counterparts could not. All this contributed to a rich ecosystem, to be gradually replaced by plowed ground and agricultural monocultures, beginning with the arrival of European settlers.

At the center of the DIY prairie movement are Iowa, southwest Wisconsin, northern Illinois, and Minnesota. Many landowners look for help from consultants, contractors, and native plant nurseries. For larger projects, there is growing assistance from federal, state, and local programs.

Restoring native prairie, even a small patch of it, is an active process far from sitting back and waiting for nature to take over. The native species have to be intentionally, carefully reintroduced. It can be quite labor-intensive, difficult, and expensive to recreate the intricate grassland ecology from scratch. Getting rid of the invasive species that have moved in can also be challenging, requiring chemicals and heavy equipment to drill, till, spray and seed.

Sometimes restorationists have to set fires to mimic nature’s mechanism for keeping trees out and replenishing soil nutrients. The prairie ecosystem depends on periodic natural fires to maintain its integrity.

Reestablishing prairie is a large upfront investment in money and time, but the work diminishes after a few years as the stand becomes established and non-native species are under control. “Compared to lawn, prairie is cheaper in the long run, takes less work, and consumes no fertilizer and less water and fossil fuel for mowing,” according to Yale Environment 360. Hiring the labor for design, prep, seeding, and maintenance, though, can cost $2200-5000 per acre – whereas  a lawn might have this price tag spread out over several years.

Once established, the benefits of the prairie start to multiply. Native wildlife returns, starting with birds and insects, then coyotes, foxes, deer, raccoons, skunks, possums, rabbits, owls, and hawks. There are many species needed to rebuild the gene pool, and they return in successions.

Although the maintenance needed greatly diminishes with time, most new prairies will always require some maintenance to keep trees, brush, and invasive species from encroaching.

The small-scale prairie movement is a social change that is gradually gaining traction, but many who want to turn their land into wild grassland still run into a good deal of opposition, as one might imagine. City codes, fines, and objecting neighbors are just some of the challenges, and these can be less problematic in ecologically-minded cities and towns, though land in more remote areas is often a safer bet.

The USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program helped plant 11.6 million acres in 14 prairie states primarily with prairie grasses. Though these are not “full prairie restorations,” they contributed to restoring a good amount of wildlife habitat. As ethanol demand drove grain prices up, however, many farmers started to plant acres formerly used for conservation.

The loss of grassland in the U.S. is not an issue at the forefront of most people’s awareness. They are much more conscious of tropical rainforest loss, which is well-publicized and a more salient concern for species diversity, but reduced species diversity is a threat present almost everywhere, in every ecosystem, and not limited to the tropics.

When the first settlers arrived in the Midwest, the landscape was dominated by savannas (grassy hilltops dotted with huge oaks), flat wetlands, and open grasslands. The land was regularly cleared by wildfires, which contributed to very rich soil.

This natural, default landscape is ideal, not only because of the biodiversity it fosters, but also for its ability to reduce erosion and runoff, absorbing more rainfall than many other covers. The vast amount of organic matter the grasses contribute to the soil improves water quality as water filters through the soil. A mature prairie also doesn’t need herbicides, pesticides, or fertilizer. Perhaps most significant, a study from the University of Minnesota showed that areas with diverse plant communities supporting a wide range of species were more stable during extreme weather variations, probably because of the resilience that species diversity adds. A lawn or farm field, by contrast, contains about 5 plant species, and is therefore highly susceptible to drought, pests, and disease.

There are some common problems that plague almost every prairie ecosystem. Fragmentation is prevalent as land is given to cultivation or development. As a prairie becomes fragmented, it is broken up into smaller parcels of land and can support many species, but at dangerously low population levels. It may lack the needed pollinators for its outcrossing grass species. And the greater edge-to-volume ratio of fragmented land leaves ample opportunity for invasion by exotic species.

Very fragmented and developed landscapes also have altered fire regimes. With less opportunity for wildfires, woody plants encroach more easily, as do invasive cool-season grasses like meadow fescue, smooth brome, and Kentucky bluegrass.

Soil disturbances, like post-cultivation grazing, also lead to more weedy species. Most of these problems have the same end result – a loss of species diversity and ecological integrity.

Many conservation activists say that we should pick up again with large-scale conservation efforts, which were mostly abandoned after 1950 and the establishment of Grand Teton National Park. There is land and money out there to do this, and conservation can be more effective with a greater land area. Right now, it means getting individual landowners bought in and not discounting their small-scale contribution. And it means realizing that prairie restoration takes work and planning, but it’s not an exact science – more an exercise in trial and error and a dialogue with the local landscape.

Genevieve Slocum is a Contributor to The Free George. Photo Courtesy of Western Michigan University

The Free George is the online magazine and visitors’ guide of Upstate NY, covering things from Albany to Lake Placid, including Saratoga, the Lake George region and the Adirondacks. Check out our City Blogs section for our extended coverage areas as well.

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