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Restoring US native prairies, acre by acre, yard by yard

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Federal, state, and local programs offer financial and technical assistance, particularly for larger private projects on agricultural land. Conservation groups also offer some help. And a cottage industry of consultants, contractors, and native-plant nurseries has arisen for landowners who can’t do it all themselves. With so many players involved, no one seems to have a bird’s-eye view of just how much prairie is being restored on private land. By all accounts, however, the trend is growing, even if it may be all but impossible to quantify.

“I’ve been in this business since the early ‘70s, and there’s definitely been increasing numbers each year of prairie plantings,” Smith says. “We just haven’t kept a record of it."

As David Read wrote in an essay, “Prairie restoration is not for wimps!” it can be labor-intensive and technically challenging. People are educating themselves on the intricacies of grassland ecology, planting genetically modified “Roundup Ready” crops so they can blitz the soil clear of invasive species’ seed before sowing prairie plants, and bringing in heavy equipment to drill, till, spray, and seed. They are setting fire to their land to mimic nature’s way of keeping trees out and replenishing soil nutrients. In some places, they are banding together to swap work on one another’s properties, which one Wisconsin prairie buff likened to the barn raisings of years past.

“It definitely takes a combination of expertise in how to go about doing it and an investment up front either in money or in time,” says Chris Kirkpatrick, executive director of The Prairie Enthusiasts. “It’s a lot of doing things at the right time in the right order.” The 1,200-member group has 11 chapters in Wisconsin, Illinois, and Minnesota, up from five a decade ago. The work diminishes after a few years as the new prairie becomes established, Kirkpatrick says. 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, he says.

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