Friday, August 26, 2011

Conserving Prairie History

On the National Parks Service website for the Homestead National Monument of America which was last updated May, 2011, Adolph Murie is quoted in 1940 as saying, “In restoring the prairie grasslands the ultimate aim is to approach as near the original as possible. How near the original we can come is not known. But it would seem desirable to make an effort early in the program to restore some of the more prominent spring, summer and fall flowers to show a part of Nature which no doubt gave some cheer to the first settlers.”

By Katie Graham
Southeast Community College

Today I will inform you about the efforts to conserve the grasses and forbs, or flowers, of the prairie. I will speak about why it is important to conserve this quickly fading ecosystem, what is being done at the Homestead National Monument to conserve the prairie, and what is being done right here on our own campus [Southeast Community College] to conserve a piece of history.

Countless prairie restoration projects exist over all of North America today. Conservationists are trying to restore an ecosystem that is quickly fading. Once this natural habitat is destroyed completely, none of us will be able to enjoy what we never appreciated as being there in the first place. The tall grass prairies, which use to cover billions of acres, has now become the most extinct ecosystem in all of North America according to Sarah Osterhoudt and her article A Prairie Primer in OnEarth an online journal from the fall of 2001.

There is debate over what constitutes being restored, though. It can take many centuries to bring back the original assortment of soil, plants, and animals. It is not enough to throw down seeds and hope they produce a prairie. According to John Carey and his article Little Habitat on the Prairie Only Remnants Remain of the Nation's Original Prairie, and Biologists Are Scrambling to Understand and Restore What is Left from National Wildlife (2002), the hand of humans is needed first to replant the original vegetation where needed and then to keep it healthy, along with the occasional need for orchestrated fire and grazing.

The grasses and forbs, or flowers, of the prairie have begun adapting over the last thousand years or so to conditions that others plants and trees can’t handle. According to Katherine Kerlin and her article in the online journal E, entitled Return of the Native: Natural Prairies Slowly Make a Comeback in May of 2002, the native vegetation has adapted their root systems into one that can delve 12 to 20 feet into the ground which helps control erosion and adds to water quality by absorbing waste runoff. As you can see in this illustration, the prairie grasses have extensive root systems that develop before the plants ever start reaching out above ground. Above ground, the native plants help in snow control and preventing drifts across roads and can reach up to 10 or more feet. (Kerlin, 2002).

Now that I have told you a little about trying to restore the prairie ecosystem, one that has become the most extinct in North America, and how the grasses and forbs have begun adapting to harsh conditions, let’s talk about what we are doing here in Nebraska to conserve the prairie we have.

Nebraska is home to the second oldest prairie conservation in the United States which started in 1939. And while we may not all come from Nebraska, conserving any prairie in North America should be something we all care about. Through the restoration project at the Homestead National Monument, park staff has been able to bring back many of the original and diverse plants of the prairie (National Park Service, 2011).

On the National Parks Service website for the Homestead National Monument of America, James and Debacker in their Plant Community Monitoring Trend Report from 2007, state that currently there are 116 different species of plants present at the Homestead.

In an interview on August 14, 2011, with Jesse Bolli, who is a Resource Management Specialist at the Homestead National Monument, about 60 acres of the land is native trees, 100 acres is the prairie, which is broken into 20% for thicket, 25% for grasses and roughly 55% for forbs and other plants. The main ways they help control and encourage the prairie growth is through controlled burns, some mowing, and little herbicide. Controlled burns at the Homestead started in 1970. In 1990 the rotation was changed to a three year rotation and again in 2004 to burn 2/5 every year, taking the 4 year to rest. The Homestead uses herbicide only when needed and on a low level setting so as not to spray a large area.

Now that I have told you about the efforts at the Homestead National monument in restoring and conserving the prairie, let’s take a look a little closer to us and see what SCC is doing to conserve the natural prairie. Southeast Community College started its restoration program in 2007 to conserve what they can of the original plants. In an interview on August 14, 2011 with Nate Walker, who works here on the SCC campus in the Prairie Partnership office, SCC began with a high diversity planting with seeds from the Prairie Plains Resource Institute. Only local seed from around Nebraska was chosen to be planted, because plants outside Nebraska may affect other plant species growth or may be too weak to thrive under our soil conditions.

There were 16 species of grasses, five species of sedges, 17 species of legumes, 41 species of composites and 40 species of forbs planted in the high diversity planting which totals about 119 species. Another 10 to 20 species were collected and added later and about 10 species of weedy natives were present naturally (N. Walker, 2011).

The SCC prairie conservation is in its fourth growing season now. They had their last scheduled burn in February of 2008 which they do every three years, and that is why the flowers are so big now. After a scheduled burn, which is fed by the tall grass fuel, the flowers have a chance to take over and flourish. The grasses are usually dominant in summer and fall (N. Walker, 2011).

As we see in these pictures I took here at SCC, the flowers are tall and vibrant, while the grasses are a little shorter yet. This makes for better health for the ecosystem. The cycle of burning, grazing(which neither SCC nor the Homestead do), produces flowers that are higher in the graze lands and burn spots and eventually give way to the grasses in the summer and fall months (N. Walker, 2011).

We have just taken a look at what SCC and the Prairie Partnership office is doing to conserve the natural plants found in Nebraska through there high diversity planting and maintenance of our little patch of history. Thank you for listening as I informed you about the efforts to conserve the grasses and forbs of the prairie. Numerous restoration projects are in swing all over North America to conserve a quickly fading ecosystem, Nebraska is home to the second oldest prairie conservation in America, and Southeast Community College began its restoration project in 2007 to aid in conserving a part of history. It may take hundreds of years to restore a prairie close to its originality, but it’s worth the time and effort to save a little piece of our own history for generations to come.


Bolli, J. Resource Management Specialist at the Homestead National Monument of America
(personal communication, interview, August, 14, 2011).

Carey, J. (2000, June-July). Little habitat on the prairie - only remnants remain of the nation's original prairie, and biologists are scrambling to understand and restore what is left. National Wildlife.

James, K., & DeBacker, M. (2007). Plant community monitoring trend report. Homestead National Monument of America.

Kerlin, K. (2002, May-June). Return of the native: Natural prairies slowly make a comeback. E, 13, 3, 22.

National Park Service U.S. Department of the Interior. (2011, May). Nature and science. Retrieved from

Osterhoudt, S. (2001, Fall). A prairie primer. OnEarth, 23, 3, 27.

Walker, N. Prairie Partnership at SCC (personal communication, interview, August, 9, 2011)

Photo credits: Katie Graham

1 comment:

Katie Graham said...

Thank you so much for the opportunity for my little speech I wrote for class to be put up on you blog. It is truely an honor for me. I never thought that this would be the end result of my hard work.