Archive for Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Restoring prairies

Workshop aims to help participants preserve what’s left of land feature

October 10, 2007

Saturday morning at a prairie near Tonganoxie, goldenrods and purple asters quaked in the balmy breeze. Near the soil, three bright blossoms of a blue gentian plant peeked through a mesh of prairie grasses.

These are just a few of the 200-some wildflowers and grasses that can be found growing on a native prairie.

About 30 people attended a Saturday workshop, "Can This Prairie be Saved." Sponsored by Kansas Biological Survey, the event took place on a 20-acre prairie at Leavenworth County State Fishing Lake.

KBS researcher Jennifer Delisle, Kansas University ecology professor Sharon Ashworth, and David Farmer, who manages the prairie for Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, took the group on a prairie walking tour, identifying wildflowers and grasses, and discussing how to restore and preserve native prairies.

In the 1850s, tallgrass prairies covered about 90 percent of Leavenworth County. The prairies were thick and lush, often growing six feet tall and filled with a palette of flowers that bloomed from spring through autumn.

But as the settlers moved in, the native prairies gradually were transformed into a patchwork of farms, homes and towns.

In 2004 and 2005, KBS surveyed Leavenworth, Douglas, Johnson, Miami and Wyandotte counties to identify native prairies as part of the Kansas Natural Heritage Inventory. In Leavenworth County the study determined that only about 475 acres of high-quality native prairie remained, down from an estimated 272,000 acres in 1850.

One of the biggest challenges of managing a prairie is preventing the growth of trees. If a prairie is not hayed or burned, woody growth will take over and crowd out grasses and wildflowers. At a state-owned prairie near the Leavenworth County lake, Farmer has been working to eradicate wild dogwood trees and sumac in an effort to restore the prairie to its original condition. His methods included mowing with a brushhog, cutting down trees and using chemical applications.

"We're hoping there's enough seed bank remaining in the soil that when the shade canopy is gone and the sun hits it, the seeds will germinate again," Farmer said.

The early results are positive. In an area where he removed trees last year, an abundant crop of prairie grasses and wildflowers emerged this summer.

Among those attending the workshop were Joy and Bob Lominska, who live in southern Jefferson County. For 31 years, they have been working to restore 20 acres of their property to its original prairie condition. They're grateful that a high-quality native prairie is near their property and seeds from it blow over onto their land. They've had good results from scattering wildflower seeds. And some of the native grasses have re-established themselves.

But prairie restoration is something that can't be hurried.

"It's kind of a lifetime of work," Joy said.

To Joy, who has painstakingly researched her farm's history, the prairie restoration project is worth it.

"Part of me wants to make the farm the way it was long ago. People tilled it because they had to farm it to survive," she said, explaining that through the years the land had become badly eroded. "We want to undo that."

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