Grassland Restoration Draws National Crowd
Fri, Oct 02 2009 at 4:12 PM
By The Nature Conservancy
The Grassland Restoration Network was founded by The Nature Conservancy and others in 2003 as a way to share expertise and techniques. In response to a growing number of people across the U.S. working to restore strategic parcels of cropland to high-diversity prairie, the Network focuses on practices that work at large scales, including restorations on land owned by conservation entities and private lands restored through Farm Bill programs.
"Not long ago, it was assumed that once a prairie was plowed up for row crop agriculture, there was no way to get the plant and animal species back again," said Chris Helzer of The Nature Conservancy. "But now we've got the technology and experience to successfully harvest and plant seeds from hundreds of plant species. So in cases where it makes sense to do that kind of restoration, we can re-establish that diverse plant community." Once the plant community is re-established, Helzer said, the insects, birds, and other animals return too – mostly. "We're still trying to figure out what kinds of prairie size requirements different animals need," he said.
The Aurora workshop was hosted by The Nature Conservancy and Prairie Plains Resource Institute. Both are leaders in prairie restoration in Nebraska. Prairie Plains, founded by Bill and Jan Whitney in 1980, pioneered the techniques used in most high-diversity restorations across the state today. They have restored over 6,000 acres themselves, most containing more than 150 plant species. The Nature Conservancy has restored about 1,500 acres along the Central Platte River, and has become a national leader in developing the science that drives both prairie restoration and management techniques.
"It all started with Bill Whitney and his early work in the 1980's," Helzer said. "Now Pheasants Forever, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are using the same techniques to restore high-quality habitat across the state."
This year's workshop and tours highlighted the restoration work of both host organizations, and also included discussion about the use of prescribed fire and cattle grazing to maintain the quality of those restored prairies over time.
"It's interesting that east of the Missouri River, most prairie biologists are very skeptical about the use of cattle grazing to manage prairies for wildlife and plant diversity," said Helzer. "But we're finding that both fire and grazing are important tools, and maybe even necessary tools, for maintaining both habitat quality and plant diversity."
He added that the use of cattle grazing ensures that restored prairies aren't removed from the local agricultural economy. Instead, they contribute to a farmer's bottom line while providing habitat for wildlife, pollinators, and other prairie insects.
The workshop included presentations from restoration projects from across the U.S., including some working to restore prairies at the scale of 10,000 to 20,000 acres.
"There is some incredible work going on around the country," said Helzer. "It's great to be able to bring experts from those projects together to share information."
MNN is working with The Nature Conservancy to bring you state-by-state environmental information.