The Southeastern Grasslands Initiative: bringing Chicago-style conservation to the South (Full Story)

Dear Friends of SGI,

As Executive Director of a new but rapidly growing conservation organization, one of the most frequently asked questions that I get is, “how can you conserve Southeastern grasslands when most types have disappeared by more than 90 percent?” My answer a few years ago would have emphasized the need for increased state and federal funding to provide additional resources for grassland conservation, and heavy investments from philanthropic foundations and corporations. While each of those aspects certainly needs to be a major ingredient to the solution, I now realize that there is a critical piece that has been missing. 

After reading Stephen Packard and Cornelia Mutel's The Tallgrass Restoration Handbook, in which they discuss techniques for high-quality grassland restoration efforts within the Midwestern tallgrass prairies and savannas, I realized that the successful approaches being used to restore these imperiled habitats in Chicago and other parts of the Midwest are ones that are rarely, if ever, being used in the Southeast. I got in touch with conservationist Justin Pepper, Director of the Chicago-based Bobolink Foundation, and he offered to give me a tour of some of Chicago's finest grassland restorations. 

My experience in Chicago came at a critical time soon after Theo Witsell (SGI's Director of Research) and I co-founded the Southeastern Grasslands Initiative (SGI), and were in our first year of developing its foundation and vision. Join me below as I share the five lessons learned from that incredible 2-day trip and how those lessons fundamentally changed SGI's approach and vision for conserving and restoring what Dr. Reed Noss (SGI's Chief Science Advisor) has termed the "Forgotten Grasslands of the South" in his 2013 book published by Island Press. 

For individual parts of the series click below, but be sure not to miss a part:

Part 1 - Community-led conservation is the way of the future

Part 2 - Bringing Chicago-style conservation to the southeastern U.S.

Part 3 - If we rebuild them, they will come

Part 4 - Urban vs. wild, either will work just fine

Part 5 - The sky is the limit

Part 6 - SGI needs your help, here's how


Part 1 of 6 - community-led conservation is the way of the future

visit to headquarters of the citizens for conservation, barrington, Illinois

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Lesson 1. Community-led Conservation is the way of the future

Community-led conservation can be a major driving force in rebuilding our lost grassland ecosystems. Within each community, strong leadership and a base of operations are essential. SGI's mission is to replicate this Chicago model in dozens of communities across our 23 state focal area. The power of the people knows no bounds.

On my first day in town, Justin invited me to participate in a morning work day with numerous volunteers affiliated with The Citizens for Conservation (CFC) (https://citizensforconservation.org/), a small, non-profit organization based in the northwest Chicago suburb of Barrington. Check out their Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/CFCBarrington/ and you'll see that they are not just about conservation, but rather their approach is inherently stepped in community building through education, outreach, and experiential learning. 

I met Justin at a small barn bustling with a surprising amount of activity for a Saturday morning. Alongside him was Tom Vanderpoel, who had been a volunteer for CFC for a few decades and had worked essentially full-time hours for many years. His tall frame and congenial personality immediately garnered my respect and it was clear he was a leader. I hung on to his every word.

Tom led us into the barn, which, along with a small house next door, served as the headquarters for the CFC. The lower floor was filled with shovels, rakes, tarps, buckets and more. Up in the loft he showed us wooden drying racks where volunteers had sorted seed-heads from dozens of species of recently collected prairie wildflowers and grasses. "This is the seed-processing area," Tom said as he pointed to charts on the wall that had lists of prairie species and ranges of dates showing when each species should be collected and how their seeds needed to be cleaned.

He added, "our teams of volunteers go out and collect seeds from hundreds of native species from local remnants or from our own propagation beds and bring them back here for processing." This procedure entails removing excess sticks, leaves, insects, and other debris by hand to get the seeds as clean as possible.

Tom and Justin then led the way downstairs to the propagation beds outside, where they were growing prairie wildflowers, grasses, and wetland sedges and rushes in over a dozen raised propagation beds. Each bed was lined with railroad timbers and filled with various soil mixtures. A sand mixture was used for species that typically grow in local sand savannas whereas other beds were lined with plastic and filled with water to hold species that grow in wet prairies and marshes.

In some beds the plants were growing in stratified arrays with tall species such as Tall Coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), and Missouri Ironweed (Vernonia missurica) protruding above White Wild Indigo (Baptisia alba var. macrophylla) and Rattlesnake Master (Eryngium yuccifolium). Below these tall- and mid-statured plants, short species such as Yellow Flax (Linum medium var. texanum) and Lousewort (Pedicularis canadensis) were growing, alongside small panic grasses (Dichanthelium leibergii) and sedges (Carex glaucodea). The beds were designed such that volunteers could walk around them easily, reaching and harvesting various species by hand, similar to the way one picks berries.

Tom explained that CFC's army of volunteers work throughout the year, logging hundreds of man-hours, continually harvesting seed from the raised beds and collecting from nearby prairie remnants [they also do myriad other tasks]. These seeds are harvested mostly by hand and some with the aid of mechanical harvesters. Once brought back they are spread on tarps and trays in the barn and stored for a period of time in dry, low-humidity conditions in the loft. Some that are wild-collected in relatively small amounts are brought back and sowed in the propagation beds to help increase their numbers. 

In the late fall and winter, CFC volunteers gather for mixing parties during which hundreds of pounds of seed collected throughout the year are mixed into more than a dozen specially-designed seed mixes, each containing dozens or in some cases 100+ species. They have mixes developed for dry sand prairies in full sun, wet prairie swales, partially-shaded sites under semi-open oak canopies of woodlands/savannas, and rocky sloping grasslands. In some Midwestern regions, such as Indiana's Kankakee Sands Preserve, these specially designed, high-diversity, end-of-year seed mixes can yield hundreds of millions of seeds and chaff weighing in excess of 1-2 tons. Although the CFC's seed mixes are smaller, they are still super diverse. When applied to restoration sites, these seeds help to swamp out competing weed seeds and greatly expedite the restoration process.  

 CFC volunteers spread seed harvested from local Chicago-area prairie remnants and from propagation beds at their headquarters. Seeds are often spready by hand with the help of teams of committed volunteers. This usually happens in late fall prior to oncoming winter snows.

CFC volunteers spread seed harvested from local Chicago-area prairie remnants and from propagation beds at their headquarters. Seeds are often spready by hand with the help of teams of committed volunteers. This usually happens in late fall prior to oncoming winter snows.

Lesson 1: The takeaway lessons from the morning visit to CFC's headquarters revealed the importance of grassroots conservation efforts. Such efforts need to be community-based, but it is also important to have a home base where diverse groups of people can gather to work together, to receive training, and to be with like-minded people. It is important to note that this base of operations is more than just a place to store materials or as a training facility, but it is essentially a community center, a place where multiple generations can work side by side, from ages 9 to 90, and where people of different educational and ethnic backgrounds can come together for a common goal that is vital to building healthy communities. 

click here for part 2

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Part 2 of 6 - Bringing chicago-style conservation to the southeastern u.s. 

visit to spring creek prairie

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Lesson 2. Bringing Chicago-style conservation to the southeastern U.S.

There's more to grassland restoration than "Native Warm Season Grasses" and "Pollinator Mixes." SGI aims to bring Chicago's unique restoration approach to the Southeast to revolutionize approaches to restoration.

After touring CFC's headquarters, we drove a few miles away to Spring Creek Prairie. The scene was one of sheer beauty and not something I expected in the sea of Chicago suburbia. The prairie appeared as an expansive meadow in a broad stream valley, with the grasses and showy wildflowers extending out of the broad bottomland into the surrounding uplands.

Volunteers were arriving in a carpool behind me as I stood there at the edge of the valley looking downslope at the butterflies and busy little songbirds darting from one wildflower patch to another. I talked to a few of them as they gathered near the prairie's edge. Nearly all were retired and some had been engineers, accountants, business owners, and school teachers, but not one of them had been employed as a professional conservation worker, biologist, naturalist, or researcher.

One lady in particular mentioned that she had been volunteering for nearly 40 years. She pointed at the prairie below us and said, “I remember not so long ago, probably when you were just a small child, when this whole area was a forest covered with invasive species...just look at it today."  

 Purple Prairie Clover graces the upper slopes of Spring Creek Prairie.

Purple Prairie Clover graces the upper slopes of Spring Creek Prairie.

Justin explained that the forest that once covered the bottomland had been severely infested with European Buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica), an invasive shrub that now is a serious pest throughout the Midwest and Northeast. Now in its place were scattered Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa) and a beautiful restored prairie. Some forest still existed and the volunteers assured me that they would continue to chip away, too, and eventually the whole valley would be returned to the way it was in the mid-1800s before the invasion of the prairie by trees as a result of fire suppression and loss of bison.

The team soon began to walk single-file down the prairie slope because the objective of the day was to hand-pull the invasive White Sweet Clover (Melilotus albus) which threatened to spread and get out of control in the prairie if left unchecked. I fell in line and was eager to work alongside them and hear more of their stories and to learn from Tom. As we walked, I admired the gorgeous display of Purple Prairie Clover (Dalea purpurea) that graced the hillside but was just going out of flower. Justin explained that this little patch of hillside prairie was all that remained of Spring Creek Prairie up until about 30 years ago before they started clearing the forest.

 The bottomland shown here that is now Spring Creek Prairie was a dense forest 40 years ago. Citizens for Conservation volunteers have worked tirelessly to bring back the prairie that existed here  before  the forest.

The bottomland shown here that is now Spring Creek Prairie was a dense forest 40 years ago. Citizens for Conservation volunteers have worked tirelessly to bring back the prairie that existed here before the forest.

It was incredible to see how such a small group of people over the course of a few decades could expand a tiny prairie to the scale of a few hundred acres. Most of the species were brought back using locally collected seeds, cleaned and processed back at the barn, and then brought here and hand-dispersed by CFC's volunteers. 

Once we reached the restored bottomland prairie, something down low caught my eye. I crouched and parted a bunch of Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) and Wild Quinine (Parthenium integrifolium) to get a better look at a tiny herb only five inches tall. "Wow! You guys thought of everything, didn't you?  I can't believe y'all deliberately added Small Skullcap (Scutellaria parvula) to the seed mix!" Justin smiled and nodded as I tried to contain my excitement. I couldn't wait to see what other details lay in store for me to discover in these rebuilt Chicago prairies. 

I was shocked to learn that the preferred method of sowing seeds at Spring Creek is to sow seeds of dozens to 100+ species directly into an existing thatch of non-native cool season grasses using a technique known as overseeding. According to Tom, they have had great success seeding directly into patches dominated by Queen-Anne's Lace (Daucus carota), Smooth Brome Grass (Bromus inermis), Orchard Grass (Dactylis glomerata), and Timothy (Phleum pratense).

In contrast, back home in the South, prairie restorations usually involve the planting of only a handful of species, such as the big four "native warm-season grasses" or NWSGs (Big Bluestem, Little Bluestem, Indian Grass, Gama Grass) as they are often called, or low-diversity pollinator mixes of 10-20 species. These mixes, almost as a rule, are sowed with a no-till drill into a thoroughly prepared planting bed such as a retired crop field or hayfield, or a former pasture treated with herbicide. Certainly these techniques are more practical in many situations due to their practicality, cost, and relative speed with which they can be established. Still, there are many places in the South where the Chicago-style approach would work well, especially on publicly accessible lands near or in urban centers.

Lesson 2: My second lesson of the trip was the realization that I couldn't think of a single place in the Southeast (perhaps with exception of south Texas) where grasslands were being restored to such an amazing quality.  I left Spring Creek Prairie inspired and determined that SGI can and will find a way to bring these Chicago-style methods to the Southeast where so many of our grasslands have been driven to the brink of extinction and must be rebuilt from scratch. These methods would not necessarily replace existing proven methods but would serve to complement them or be used in combination.

 Dwayne Estes, Executive Director of the Southeastern Grasslands Initiative (left), stands beside Justin Pepper, Chief Conservation Officer of the Bobolink Foundation, during a visit to Spring Creek Prairie in the Chicago suburbs to pull invasive White Sweet Clover with volunteers from the Citizens for Conservation organization. Where they are standing was forest just a couple of decades ago.

Dwayne Estes, Executive Director of the Southeastern Grasslands Initiative (left), stands beside Justin Pepper, Chief Conservation Officer of the Bobolink Foundation, during a visit to Spring Creek Prairie in the Chicago suburbs to pull invasive White Sweet Clover with volunteers from the Citizens for Conservation organization. Where they are standing was forest just a couple of decades ago.


Part 3 of 6 - if we rebuild them, they will come

lessons from grigsby prairie

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Lesson 3. If we rebuild them, they will come...

Many rare species that are in severe decline throughout their ranges are rebounding in the Chicago area thanks to the increase in high-quality grassland conservation efforts. Let's bring similar efforts to the SGI focal area.

After our visit to Spring Creek Prairie and a brief lunch we drove a few miles away, through an upscale suburban landscape, to a smaller restored prairie known as Grigsby Prairie. Just a few weeks prior I had heard about this site from my friend, Philip Juras. Philip is an amazing oil painter with a passion for painting grasslands. For years he has been traveling from his home in Athens, Georgia to Chicago to paint the area's prairies and savannas and has completed more than a dozen paintings from the region. 

 At Grigsby Prairie, we spotted the rare Baltimore Checkerspot ( Euphydryas phaeton ), a species that some fear is slipping towards extinction. Somehow it found Grigsby Prairie.

At Grigsby Prairie, we spotted the rare Baltimore Checkerspot (Euphydryas phaeton), a species that some fear is slipping towards extinction. Somehow it found Grigsby Prairie.

As we walked a loop through the prairie, Tom pointed out a small dull-colored bird popping from one shrub clump to another. "That's Henslow's Sparrow," he whispered. At 6'3" tall, I move ungracefully through a prairie and I have to remind myself to tone down my loud Southern voice, especially when in the company of birders like Tom and Justin. So, I quieted my excited chatter to avoid scaring these rare birds from their perch.

I knew this species was in decline across its range, but Justin informed me that Henslow's Sparrow is "on the upswing in the greater Chicago area due to the spike in prairie restoration efforts in the past few decades" led by CFC volunteers. Taking but a few steps, we saw a second rare animal--the Baltimore Checkerspot--a butterfly that, like the sparrow, somehow had navigated the seemingly endless sea of suburbia, manicured lawns, fields of non-native grasses, crop fields, forested blocks, and pavement, to find, miraculously, this little re-created wildflower oasis. 

Visiting this little prairie with Tom and Justin was inspiring. If we replicate the unique approach being used in Chicago in places like Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina where the vast grasslands disappeared largely by 1750 or the rapidly vanishing Blackland Prairies east of Austin, Texas, then we can reverse the tide of grassland biodiversity loss in the Southeast.

Lesson 3: This visit to Grigsby Prairie taught me my third lesson. As we walked back to the car, I couldn't help but think of the 1989 movie, Field of Dreams, and I said aloud, "if we rebuild them, they will come." But importantly, it's not just about planting "native warm season grasses" and it's more than planting a pollinator-friendly mix to attract Monarchs, to truly curb the erosion of our grassland biodiversity we must strive to re-create and restore more species-rich grasslands across the South with the utmost care and attention to detail that our friends in Chicago have been doing for decades...and it's working! 

  Inspired by Poplar Creek Prairie (Late July), Cook County, Illinois, December 2013, Oil on canvas, 24 " x 36", by Philip Juras.    From Philip's website: "  In this scene, inspired by a late July visit to Poplar Creek Prairie, big bluestem grass has just begun to send its flowering stalks as high as a horse’s back. Also reaching overhead is the robust stalk of a compass plant in full bloom, and stems of the not yet flowering tall tickseed. Lower down are the abundant colorful blooms of the lavender flowering bee balm and bright yellow flowers of the gray-headed coneflower. These two are often seen in recently restored areas of prairie. Also in the foreground is the off-white wild quinine and the not yet flowering stems of stiff goldenrod.    These are only a handful of over one hundred species of prairie plants that have been lovingly restored to this former farm site. Since 1989, the Poplar Prairie Stewards, a project of the Forest Preserves of Cook County, have brought some 600 acres back to a near pre-settlement condition, all centered on a tiny remnant of dry prairie that survived on a gravelly hill on the site. Although it is surrounded by the suburban sprawl of Chicago, when walking through these 600 acres one can almost imagine the vast expanse of prairies and woodlands that once covered this part of Illinois ." (Juras 2013)

Inspired by Poplar Creek Prairie (Late July), Cook County, Illinois, December 2013, Oil on canvas, 24 " x 36", by Philip Juras.

From Philip's website: "In this scene, inspired by a late July visit to Poplar Creek Prairie, big bluestem grass has just begun to send its flowering stalks as high as a horse’s back. Also reaching overhead is the robust stalk of a compass plant in full bloom, and stems of the not yet flowering tall tickseed. Lower down are the abundant colorful blooms of the lavender flowering bee balm and bright yellow flowers of the gray-headed coneflower. These two are often seen in recently restored areas of prairie. Also in the foreground is the off-white wild quinine and the not yet flowering stems of stiff goldenrod.

These are only a handful of over one hundred species of prairie plants that have been lovingly restored to this former farm site. Since 1989, the Poplar Prairie Stewards, a project of the Forest Preserves of Cook County, have brought some 600 acres back to a near pre-settlement condition, all centered on a tiny remnant of dry prairie that survived on a gravelly hill on the site. Although it is surrounded by the suburban sprawl of Chicago, when walking through these 600 acres one can almost imagine the vast expanse of prairies and woodlands that once covered this part of Illinois." (Juras 2013)


Part 4 of 6 - urban or wild, either will work just fine

visit to somme prairie

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Lesson 4. Urban or wild, either will work just fine

Efforts in the greater Chicago area prove that great grassland restoration can happen both in rural areas and in the heart of one of the nation's largest cities. SGI aims to bring similar approaches to dozens of communities across our 23 state region, including Austin, TX and Charlotte, NC.

 Tom Vanderpoel (1951-2017)

Tom Vanderpoel (1951-2017)

By the time we left Grigsby Prairie, it was getting past 3:00 p.m. and Tom needed to part ways. Unfortunately, we could not have known that our visit with Tom would be our last. Just a week later, I learned that he passed away peacefully in his sleep. The world lost a special person in Tom Vanderpoel. I only knew him for a few hours that one day and the impression he left upon me and our developing organization and the lessons he unknowingly taught me are things I will carry with me as I attempt to grow and lead the Southeastern Grasslands Initiative. I only wish I could have known Tom longer and that I could have been mentored by him.   

After saying goodbye to Tom, Justin called up Stephen Packard to see if he would be up for an impromptu late afternoon visit. Soon we were driving through a quaint neighborhood on our way to Stephen's house. Some of the lawns were shaded with large Bur Oaks, whose heavy spreading crowns and knotty boles indicated to me that the area was once covered in Bur Oak savannas. Philip's painting below suggests what Stephen's neighborhood likely looked like prior to settlement.

  Bur Oak, Flint Creek Savanna, Lake County, Illinois, July 11, 2017, Oil on canvas, 10 x 16 in, by Philip Juras.    Some of the trees near Stephen Packard's neighborhood were old-growth bur oaks. The spreading growth form of these ancient trees comes from the fact that they have grown for 2-3 centuries among open, fire-maintained savannas where they can spread their branches.

Bur Oak, Flint Creek Savanna, Lake County, Illinois, July 11, 2017, Oil on canvas, 10 x 16 in, by Philip Juras.

Some of the trees near Stephen Packard's neighborhood were old-growth bur oaks. The spreading growth form of these ancient trees comes from the fact that they have grown for 2-3 centuries among open, fire-maintained savannas where they can spread their branches.

Up ahead I saw one yard that stood out at a distance. I could see coneflowers, sunflowers, compass plants, and prairie grasses stretching from the front door to the sidewalk. I knew that must be Stephen's house.

For a while we sat and visited in his living room, eating fresh cherries. I told him about SGI and that the reason I came to Chicago was to see firsthand the conservation and restoration efforts he had spearheaded. He took us back a few decades with a nostalgic tale about how up until the 1970s many people thought that most of the remnants were gone.

While it is true that more than 99.9 percent of the region's original prairies have been eliminated, that didn't stop Stephen and his friends from scouring the land in search of tiny bits that remained. They found little vestiges in old cemeteries, along rural roadbanks, sandwiched between highways and adjacent railroads, or occupying spots too rocky or wet to cultivate. "These tiny remnants that we were rediscovering became the seed source for most of the restorations in the region including those you've seen today at Grigsby and Spring Creek, but," he added, "perhaps the best restoration that you have yet to see is Somme Prairie, a few blocks away."

Although I was tired from having arrived into town about 3:00 a.m. the night before and was running on just a few hours of sleep, I knew I had to see Somme Prairie. We hopped in the car and drove a few blocks away and parked along the curbside of Meadow Road in a 1960-70s-era suburban neighborhood. "Where's the prairie?" I asked incredulously. Stephen pointed towards a four-lane highway about 100 yards down the street.

As a pretty decent ecologist, I pride myself on being able to spot prairie and savanna remnants, yet there was nothing I could see from where we parked that gave me any notion that we were about to see what Stephen described as one of the best prairie restorations in the Midwest. 

  Somme Prairie is located at the end of this street, just beyond the trees that line the main highway in the background.

Somme Prairie is located at the end of this street, just beyond the trees that line the main highway in the background.

When we got to the intersection I expected to see bunch grasses, wildflowers, something, but all I could see was the highway and a wall of trees on the other side. "Watch for cars," Stephen warned as he started across the highway. Justin and I followed eagerly.

On the other side we weaved our way through head-high vegetation along what resembled a game trail. Stephen dipped through a gap in the thicket. My tall frame ducked and dodged tree limbs and briers. From the highway I had mistaken it for a dense forest, but when I finally got through the wall of vegetation after only a few yards, I straightened my back and lifted my head. The passing cars just 50 feet away now seemed barely audible against the chattering and chirping sounds of songbirds and the rattling of the tall grasses and wildflowers waving in the breeze. This was Somme Prairie....  I felt as though I had stepped into the Garden of Eden. 

 

Stephen proceeded to give me a brief overview of the site, explaining that 30 years ago it had been a dense, brushy thicket. He and a dozen volunteers from the community began a long-term, sustained effort to restore Somme. You can hear Stephen tell this story by watching his TedX Talk titled "Nature is Counting on Us."

As he gave me an overview of the site, I interrupted occasionally to ask a question about a new plant I spotted. I was like a kid in a candy store and I could hardly contain my excitement. To Justin, my exuberant, clambering style must have contrasted sharply with Stephen's quiet, soft-spoken ways.

"Whoa Stephen, is that such and such? Wow. Did it come back after removing the brush or did you have to reintroduce it?"  He assured me that most of what I was seeing had been brought back using locally harvested seeds because most of the original seedbank had been depleted in the decades that the site lay shrouded in forest. When they began their restoration, they found the site still had several of those ancient bur oaks but the rich diversity of grasses and forbs that centuries ago dominated the ground floor were gone. 

 A volunteer of Chicago's Forest Preserve program clears invasive brush in what was historically a bur oak savanna. Notice the scattered large oak trunks in the background. As these shrubs are removed, volunteers pave the way for restoring hundreds of species of grasses, sedges, wildflowers, and native prairie shrubs to this site where they have been absent for a century.

A volunteer of Chicago's Forest Preserve program clears invasive brush in what was historically a bur oak savanna. Notice the scattered large oak trunks in the background. As these shrubs are removed, volunteers pave the way for restoring hundreds of species of grasses, sedges, wildflowers, and native prairie shrubs to this site where they have been absent for a century.

Stephen seemed pleased to be in my company for he could see that as a professional botanist with an expertise in high-quality grassland communities that I just couldn't believe my eyes. I couldn't believe that what I was seeing had been almost totally rebuilt with seeds from more than 450 species. As Stephen's TedX Talk reveals, they even have been successful in restoring populations of the Eastern Prairie Fringed Orchid (Platanthera leucophaea), one of the rarest orchids in the eastern U.S., whose white flower stands out almost like a ghost to remind us of the past.

As we wound our way through the trail system at Somme, I enjoyed testing Stephen. We stopped at one point a couple dozen yards ahead of a low, wet swale. I said, "now if I were in a totally natural remnant I would expect to walk up to that swale and see a whole suite of species [I rattled off a short list of those I most expected]." I was dumbfounded when as we approached it I found them all, right as I had predicted and growing intermixed as if they had been there for hundreds of years. The same happened several more times as we hit various microhabitats such as shrub thickets, wet meadows, and dry oak woodland. They even had found ways to restore short grasslands, which really blew me away.

Lesson 4: My fourth lesson of the day came from brief visit to Somme Prairie. In addition to being inspired beyond belief, I learned that even in the middle of dense urban areas, it is possible to rebuild grassland communities such that, even though they can never return to their original condition, they can be re-created in such a way as to fool professionals into believing that they are natural remnants. That is a very difficult thing to do and is a true testament to the quality of the restorations of the Chicago area and to Stephen's leadership and vision. SGI is currently working near downtown Nashville with several partners with the intent of restoring approximately 350 acres of grassland on a new 900 acre city park. Somme Prairie proves that we don't have to escape the city to rebuild something incredible. 

Somme Prairie in Chicago is in the heart of one of America's largest cities. More than 450 species grow in this urban refuge. This example provides hope to dozens of major cities across the Southeast that once supported important grasslands that we can restore high-quality grasslands in both wild and urban landscapes.


PART 5 OF 6 - the sky is the limit

lessons from nachusa grasslands

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Lesson 5. The sky is the limit

The Chicago-style methods of restoration can be applied to sites smaller than 1 acre or they can be scaled up to cover several square miles. It can be done in the Southeast as well and SGI will lead the way. Let's dream big and find a way to rebuild grasslands that stretch to the horizon.

On Day 2 of my trip, I traveled two hours west of Chicago to the Nachusa Grasslands managed by The Nature Conservancy. My host at Nachusa was Cody Considine, a restoration ecologist for TNC. We hopped in his pickup truck and he drove me out across the vast expanse of rolling prairie so beautifully captured by Philip Juras's paintings. Nachusa happens to be one of his favorite places to paint and after my visit I certainly can see why.

This 3,700 acre re-created tallgrass prairie has Bison roaming across 1,500 acres. I could not believe that when I was just five years old, in 1983, that this rich prairie that spread before me to the horizon had been rolling fields of corn and that almost everything I was viewing had been rebuilt, except for a few hilltop natural remnants in rocky soil.

Astonishingly, many of the same methods used to rebuild small-scale prairies in the Chicago suburbs were used to rebuild Nachusa. As we toured the site, it was neat to round a corner and find a small group of seven or eight volunteers harvesting seeds of prairie plants in some remote corner of the preserve. Even though Nachusa is two hours from Chicago, they still have a strong team of local volunteers who show up faithfully to help ensure that Nachusa thrives for decades to come. This provides hope that in more rural areas of the Southeast, such as eastern Arkansas's Grand Prairie (down from 500,000 acres historically to now just 375 acres) or south Georgia's remnant chalk prairies.

 Volunteers hand-collecting seeds from prairie species.

Volunteers hand-collecting seeds from prairie species.

Cody explained how their team of volunteers are empowered and entrusted to take on leadership roles. For example, one husband and wife volunteer team has "adopted" a few acres of Nachusa. Under this model, they assume something akin to ownership of their small plot. After receiving some up-front training and instruction when they first started years ago, they now manage and plan all of the activities on their plot. This means they collect seeds from it, they help to control invasive plants, they choose which species to re-seed, and then they work to spread seeds using the overseeding method.

Undoubtedly, a lot of people might be uncomfortable with allowing non-professionals to take on such leadership roles, but after seeing it in action, I am convinced that this is an important and overlooked strategy that we must adopt for managing certain areas. The key is providing proper educational training on the front end.

Lesson 5: The fifth and final lesson I learned from my whirlwind Chicago tour is that high-quality grassland restoration driven by empowered and trained volunteers can absolutely be scaled up from tiny remnants of less than acre to tracts covering several square miles...it can be done...and it will be done. 

 

PART 6 OF 6 - sgi needs your help, here's how

We called, you answered: At the beginning of 2018, we put out a call for volunteers to join our team and the response has been amazing. Now, six months after the official launch of our organization, it warms my heart to announce that more than 400 volunteers have pledged their support. Collectively, you represent all 23 states and more than 60 communities. Thank you for taking that first step of signing our registry. Help us recruit new volunteers by sharing our message with friends, family, and colleagues.

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A brief explanation of our model:  We believe that community-led conservation is vital to saving our vanishing southeastern grasslands. Major financial investments are critical to large-scale conservation efforts across broad regions (e.g. purchasing large properties, restoring thousands of acres) and to providing core infrastructure (e.g. staffing, equipment, resource) needed to guide those efforts. However, so many of the remaining grasslands of the southeastern U.S. are small and it can be difficult to justify to philanthropic foundations, corporate sponsors, and government agencies (who may want "more bang for their buck") why funding small-scale grassland conservation is important.  Unfortunately, many of these small remnants are all that is left for some types of grassland ecosystems and we simply can't turn our backs on them. These types of grasslands, those that are small, hard to manage, located in or near urban areas, in need of frequent attention, are especially well-suited to volunteer-led efforts like those we have studied in Chicago. 

The Chicago-style model of conservation proves that grassroots, community-led approaches work and indeed the best grassland restorations seem to be those that are largely volunteer-driven. This model requires strong communication, organization, and coordination at local and regional scales. It must be guided by science and work prioritized according to threats, opportunities, and need (similar to emergency room triage). SGI's Grassland Advisory Committee will help to identify and prioritize conservation needs both throughout the 23-state focal region and within each ecoregion.

 Map showing concept of how SGI will function at a regional level, here showing a focus on North Carolina. Colored polygons equal ecoregions (yellow=Atlantic Coastal Plain; orange=Piedmont; red=Blue Ridge Mountains; purple=central Ridge and Valley; dark red=southern Ridge and Valley).  Volunteers  will work in teams (red dots), or individually, and will work on grassland projects in their communities (larger orange circles). In time, each volunteer team will be guided by a  Steward  (also a volunteer position but one willing to take on a leadership/coordination role). So far, we have identified stewards for three communities (yellow dots) but in time all communities will be in need of a steward. Stewards may guide the work of one to several groups of volunteers. Stewards and their volunteer teams will work at local levels, within communities.

Map showing concept of how SGI will function at a regional level, here showing a focus on North Carolina. Colored polygons equal ecoregions (yellow=Atlantic Coastal Plain; orange=Piedmont; red=Blue Ridge Mountains; purple=central Ridge and Valley; dark red=southern Ridge and Valley). Volunteers will work in teams (red dots), or individually, and will work on grassland projects in their communities (larger orange circles). In time, each volunteer team will be guided by a Steward (also a volunteer position but one willing to take on a leadership/coordination role). So far, we have identified stewards for three communities (yellow dots) but in time all communities will be in need of a steward. Stewards may guide the work of one to several groups of volunteers. Stewards and their volunteer teams will work at local levels, within communities.

Local Coordination:  First, we are asking for people who are willing to commit time each week to serving in a volunteer leadership/coordination role as a steward. Stewards will help to cultivate and guide a team or multiple teams of volunteers that will work at the local level on one or more projects. 

Individual team members (Volunteers) can choose the role that best fits them (see roles below). For a small town, one steward and a few dozen volunteers may be sufficient. In larger cities multiple stewards and hundreds of volunteers may be needed. Stewards and volunteers will mostly work on projects within 30 min to 1 hour of of their homes. 

Regional Coordination:  At larger statewide and regional scales, SGI will hire Coordinators who will work with multiple stewards across many communities and often across state lines, usually within ecoregions (colored polygons in the accompanying map). The coordinators will assist in training, outreach, finding and securing resources, soliciting help from other NGOs, agencies, and experts, and will circulate around the region to assist with on-the-ground projects, working side-by-side with volunteers and stewards. 


Am I a suitable volunteer for SGI?  Whether you are 9 or 90, a city-dweller or wild child of the wilderness, a high-school dropout or a doctor, and no matter if you live on the coast, the mountains of Appalachia, or on the plains of central Texas, SGI has a role for you. To sign up as a volunteer just click the button below and don't forget to share with your friends.

Am I suitable as a steward for SGI?  If you are a person who enjoys leading by example, performing a variety of tasks, and have strong leadership skills (e.g., good at motivating, inspiring, organizing, planning, delegating, communicating, and most importantly DOING)--then you might have just what it takes. So far we have had 12 people who have indicated they want to be a steward, but we need more. Potential stewards should carefully consider if this is something they have time and the desire to do. If you are ready to commit then we need you! Once committed, we ask you to commit to one year of service for starters, with the option to continue beyond that. Click the button become a steward.


Click on each icon below for more information about each volunteer role.

Do you need help selecting a volunteer role or roles? 

We are working to put into place a series of volunteer roles that will appeal to a broad swath of the public. For starters, we've listed several questions below to help you identify the specific role or roles you'd like to play. 

Enjoy studying, observing, or photographing wildflowers, birds, butterflies, etc.?

  • Biodiversity Documentation

Enjoy growing native plants or farming?

  • Conservation Horticulture, Farming Natives.

Interested in how technology or geographic information systems (GIS) can benefit grassland conservation?

  • Data Entry, Mapping

Interested in science or data analysis? 

  • Research, Monitoring

Do you want to do something that is physically challenging? Like getting dirty, hot, and sweaty?

  • Invasive Species Removal, Management, Restoration

Like working in a large group setting?

  • Seed Collecting, Invasive Species Removal, Management, Restoration, Data Entry, Herbarium Work, Rescue

Rather work alone or in small groups?

  • Biodiversity Documentation, Data Entry, Herbarium Work, Historical Research, Mapping

Do you have special skills as a fundraiser, connector, teacher, public speaker, artist, marketer, graphic designer, videographer, photographer, etc.?

  • Advocacy, Connector, Teaching, Speaker Bureau, etc.


PART 1 OF 6 - COMMUNITY-LED CONSERVATION IS THE WAY OF THE FUTURE

Lesson 1 -- VISIT TO HEADQUARTERS OF THE CITIZENS FOR CONSERVATION, BARRINGTON, ILLINOIS

Dear Friends of SGI,

As Executive Director of a new but rapidly growing conservation organization, one of the most frequently asked questions that I get is, “how can you conserve Southeastern grasslands when most types have disappeared by more than 90 percent?” My answer a few years ago would have emphasized the need for increased state and federal funding to provide additional resources for grassland conservation, and heavy investments from philanthropic foundations and corporations. While each of those aspects certainly needs to be a major ingredient to the solution, I now realize that there is a critical piece that has been missing. 

After reading Stephen Packard and Cornelia Mutel's The Tallgrass Restoration Handbook, in which they discuss techniques for high-quality grassland restoration efforts within the Midwestern tallgrass prairies and savannas, I realized that the successful approaches being used to restore these imperiled habitats in Chicago and other parts of the Midwest are ones that are rarely, if ever, being used in the Southeast. I got in touch with conservationist Justin Pepper, Director of the Chicago-based Bobolink Foundation, and he offered to give me a tour of some of Chicago's finest grassland restorations. 

My experience in Chicago came at a critical time soon after Theo Witsell (SGI's Director of Research) and I co-founded the Southeastern Grasslands Initiative (SGI), and were in our first year of developing its foundation and vision. Join me below as I share the five lessons learned from that incredible 2-day trip and how those lessons fundamentally changed SGI's approach and vision for conserving and restoring what Dr. Reed Noss (SGI's Chief Science Advisor) has termed the "Forgotten Grasslands of the South" in his 2013 book published by Island Press. 

For individual parts of the series click below, but be sure not to miss a part:

Part 1 - Community-led conservation is the way of the future

Part 2 - Bringing Chicago-style conservation to the southeastern U.S.

Part 3 - If we rebuild them, they will come

Part 4 - Urban vs. Wild, either will work just fine

Part 5 - The sky is the limit

Part 6 - SGI needs your help, here's how


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Lesson 1. Community-led Conservation is the way of the future

Community-led conservation can be a major driving force in rebuilding our lost grassland ecosystems. Within each community, strong leadership and a base of operations are essential. SGI's mission is to replicate this Chicago model in dozens of communities across our 23 state focal area. The power of the people knows no bounds.

 

On my first day in town, Justin invited me to participate in a morning work day with numerous volunteers affiliated with The Citizens for Conservation (CFC) (https://citizensforconservation.org/), a small, non-profit organization based in the northwest Chicago suburb of Barrington. Check out their Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/CFCBarrington/ and you'll see that they are not just about conservation, but rather their approach is inherently stepped in community building through education, outreach, and experiential learning. 

I met Justin at a small barn bustling with a surprising amount of activity for a Saturday morning. Alongside him was Tom Vanderpoel, who had been a volunteer for CFC for a few decades and had worked essentially full-time hours for many years. His tall frame and congenial personality immediately garnered my respect and it was clear he was a leader. I hung on to his every word.

Tom led us into the barn, which, along with a small house next door, served as the headquarters for the CFC. The lower floor was filled with shovels, rakes, tarps, buckets and more. Up in the loft he showed us wooden drying racks where volunteers had sorted seed-heads from dozens of species of recently collected prairie wildflowers and grasses. "This is the seed-processing area," Tom said as he pointed to charts on the wall that had lists of prairie species and ranges of dates showing when each species should be collected and how their seeds needed to be cleaned.

He added, "our teams of volunteers go out and collect seeds from hundreds of native species from local remnants or from our own propagation beds and bring them back here for processing." This procedure entails removing excess sticks, leaves, insects, and other debris by hand to get the seeds as clean as possible.

Tom and Justin then led the way downstairs to the propagation beds outside, where they were growing prairie wildflowers, grasses, and wetland sedges and rushes in over a dozen raised propagation beds. Each bed was lined with railroad timbers and filled with various soil mixtures. A sand mixture was used for species that typically grow in local sand savannas whereas other beds were lined with plastic and filled with water to hold species that grow in wet prairies and marshes.

In some beds the plants were growing in stratified arrays with tall species such as Tall Coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), and Missouri Ironweed (Vernonia missurica) protruding above White Wild Indigo (Baptisia alba var. macrophylla) and Rattlesnake Master (Eryngium yuccifolium). Below these tall- and mid-statured plants, short species such as Yellow Flax (Linum medium var. texanum) and Lousewort (Pedicularis canadensis) were growing, alongside small panic grasses (Dichanthelium leibergii) and sedges (Carex glaucodea). The beds were designed such that volunteers could walk around them easily, reaching and harvesting various species by hand, similar to the way one picks berries.

Tom explained that CFC's army of volunteers work throughout the year, logging hundreds of man-hours, continually harvesting seed from the raised beds and collecting from nearby prairie remnants [they also do myriad other tasks]. These seeds are harvested mostly by hand and some with the aid of mechanical harvesters. Once brought back they are spread on tarps and trays in the barn and stored for a period of time in dry, low-humidity conditions in the loft. Some that are wild-collected in relatively small amounts are brought back and sowed in the propagation beds to help increase their numbers. 

In the late fall and winter, CFC volunteers gather for mixing parties during which hundreds of pounds of seed collected throughout the year are mixed into more than a dozen specially-designed seed mixes, each containing dozens or in some cases 100+ species. They have mixes developed for dry sand prairies in full sun, wet prairie swales, partially-shaded sites under semi-open oak canopies of woodlands/savannas, and rocky sloping grasslands. In some Midwestern regions, such as Indiana's Kankakee Sands Preserve, these specially designed, high-diversity, end-of-year seed mixes can yield hundreds of millions of seeds and chaff weighing in excess of 1-2 tons. Although the CFC's seed mixes are smaller, they are still super diverse. When applied to restoration sites, these seeds help to swamp out competing weed seeds and greatly expedite the restoration process.  

 CFC volunteers spread seed harvested from local Chicago-area prairie remnants and from propagation beds at their headquarters. Seeds are often spready by hand with the help of teams of committed volunteers. This usually happens in late fall prior to oncoming winter snows.

CFC volunteers spread seed harvested from local Chicago-area prairie remnants and from propagation beds at their headquarters. Seeds are often spready by hand with the help of teams of committed volunteers. This usually happens in late fall prior to oncoming winter snows.

Lesson 1: The takeaway lessons from the morning visit to CFC's headquarters revealed the importance of grassroots conservation efforts. Such efforts need to be community-based, but it is also important to have a home base where diverse groups of people can gather to work together, to receive training, and to be with like-minded people. It is important to note that this base of operations is more than just a place to store materials or as a training facility, but it is essentially a community center, a place where multiple generations can work side by side, from ages 9 to 90, and where people of different educational and ethnic backgrounds can come together for a common goal that is vital to building healthy communities. 

click here for Part 2

click here for the full 6-part story


PART 2 OF 6 - BRINGING CHICAGO-STYLE CONSERVATION TO THE SOUTHEASTERN U.S. 

lesson 2 -- visit to spring creek prairie

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Lesson 2. Bringing Chicago-style conservation to the southeastern U.S.

There's more to grassland restoration than "Native Warm Season Grasses" and "Pollinator Mixes." SGI aims to bring Chicago's unique restoration approach to the Southeast to revolutionize approaches to restoration.

After touring CFC's headquarters, we drove a few miles away to Spring Creek Prairie. The scene was one of sheer beauty and not something I expected in the sea of Chicago suburbia. The prairie appeared as an expansive meadow in a broad stream valley, with the grasses and showy wildflowers extending out of the broad bottomland into the surrounding uplands.

Volunteers were arriving in a carpool behind me as I stood there at the edge of the valley looking downslope at the butterflies and busy little songbirds darting from one wildflower patch to another. I talked to a few of them as they gathered near the prairie's edge. Nearly all were retired and some had been engineers, accountants, business owners, and school teachers, but not one of them had been employed as a professional conservation worker, biologist, naturalist, or researcher.

One lady in particular mentioned that she had been volunteering for nearly 40 years. She pointed at the prairie below us and said, “I remember not so long ago, probably when you were just a small child, when this whole area was a forest covered with invasive species...just look at it today."  

 Purple Prairie Clover graces the upper slopes of Spring Creek Prairie. 

Purple Prairie Clover graces the upper slopes of Spring Creek Prairie. 

Justin explained that the forest that once covered the bottomland had been severely infested with European Buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica), an invasive shrub that now is a serious pest throughout the Midwest and Northeast. Now in its place were scattered Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa) and a beautiful restored prairie. Some forest still existed and the volunteers assured me that they would continue to chip away, too, and eventually the whole valley would be returned to the way it was in the mid-1800s before the invasion of the prairie by trees as a result of fire suppression and loss of bison.

The team soon began to walk single-file down the prairie slope because the objective of the day was to hand-pull the invasive White Sweet Clover (Melilotus albus) which threatened to spread and get out of control in the prairie if left unchecked. I fell in line and was eager to work alongside them and hear more of their stories and to learn from Tom. As we walked, I admired the gorgeous display of Purple Prairie Clover (Dalea purpurea) that graced the hillside but was just going out of flower. Justin explained that this little patch of hillside prairie was all that remained of Spring Creek Prairie up until about 30 years ago before they started clearing the forest.

 The bottomland shown here that is now Spring Creek Prairie was a dense forest 40 years ago. Citizens for Conservation volunteers have worked tirelessly to bring back the prairie that existed here  before  the forest.

The bottomland shown here that is now Spring Creek Prairie was a dense forest 40 years ago. Citizens for Conservation volunteers have worked tirelessly to bring back the prairie that existed here before the forest.

It was incredible to see how such a small group of people over the course of a few decades could expand a tiny prairie to the scale of a few hundred acres. Most of the species were brought back using locally collected seeds, cleaned and processed back at the barn, and then brought here and hand-dispersed by CFC's volunteers. 

Once we reached the restored bottomland prairie, something down low caught my eye. I crouched and parted a bunch of Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) and Wild Quinine (Parthenium integrifolium) to get a better look at a tiny herb only five inches tall. "Wow! You guys thought of everything, didn't you?  I can't believe y'all deliberately added Small Skullcap (Scutellaria parvula) to the seed mix!" Justin smiled and nodded as I tried to contain my excitement. I couldn't wait to see what other details lay in store for me to discover in these rebuilt Chicago prairies. 

I was shocked to learn that the preferred method of sowing seeds at Spring Creek is to sow seeds of dozens to 100+ species directly into an existing thatch of non-native cool season grasses using a technique known as overseeding. According to Tom, they have had great success seeding directly into patches dominated by Queen-Anne's Lace (Daucus carota), Smooth Brome Grass (Bromus inermis), Orchard Grass (Dactylis glomerata), and Timothy (Phleum pratense).

In contrast, back home in the South, prairie restorations usually involve the planting of only a handful of species, such as the big four "native warm-season grasses" or NWSGs (Big Bluestem, Little Bluestem, Indian Grass, Gama Grass) as they are often called, or low-diversity pollinator mixes of 10-20 species. These mixes, almost as a rule, are sowed with a no-till drill into a thoroughly prepared planting bed such as a retired crop field or hayfield, or a former pasture treated with herbicide. Certainly these techniques are more practical in many situations due to their practicality, cost, and relative speed with which they can be established. Still, there are many places in the South where the Chicago-style approach would work well, especially on publicly accessible lands near or in urban centers.

Lesson 2: My second lesson of the trip was the realization that I couldn't think of a single place in the Southeast (perhaps with exception of south Texas) where grasslands were being restored to such an amazing quality.  I left Spring Creek Prairie inspired and determined that SGI can and will find a way to bring these Chicago-style methods to the Southeast where so many of our grasslands have been driven to the brink of extinction and must be rebuilt from scratch. These methods would not necessarily replace existing proven methods but would serve to complement them or be used in combination.

 Dwayne Estes, Executive Director of the Southeastern Grasslands Initiative (left), stands beside Justin Pepper, Chief Conservation Officer of the Bobolink Foundation, during a visit to Spring Creek Prairie in the Chicago suburbs to pull invasive White Sweet Clover with volunteers from the Citizens for Conservation organization. Where they are standing was forest just a couple of decades ago.

Dwayne Estes, Executive Director of the Southeastern Grasslands Initiative (left), stands beside Justin Pepper, Chief Conservation Officer of the Bobolink Foundation, during a visit to Spring Creek Prairie in the Chicago suburbs to pull invasive White Sweet Clover with volunteers from the Citizens for Conservation organization. Where they are standing was forest just a couple of decades ago.


Part 3 of 6 - if we rebuild them, they will come

Lesson 3 -- lessons from Grigsby Prairie

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Lesson 3. If we rebuild them, they will come...

Many rare species that are in severe decline throughout their ranges are rebounding in the Chicago area thanks to the increase in high-quality grassland conservation efforts. Let's bring similar efforts to the SGI focal area.

After our visit to Spring Creek Prairie and a brief lunch we drove a few miles away, through an upscale suburban landscape, to a smaller restored prairie known as Grigsby Prairie. Just a few weeks prior I had heard about this site from my friend, Philip Juras. Philip is an amazing oil painter with a passion for painting grasslands. For years he has been traveling from his home in Athens, Georgia to Chicago to paint the area's prairies and savannas and has completed more than a dozen paintings from the region. 

 At Grigsby Prairie, we spotted the rare Baltimore Checkerspot ( Euphydryas phaeton ), a species that some fear is slipping towards extinction. Somehow it found Grigsby Prairie.

At Grigsby Prairie, we spotted the rare Baltimore Checkerspot (Euphydryas phaeton), a species that some fear is slipping towards extinction. Somehow it found Grigsby Prairie.

As we walked a loop through the prairie, Tom pointed out a small dull-colored bird popping from one shrub clump to another. "That's Henslow's Sparrow," he whispered. At 6'3" tall, I move ungracefully through a prairie and I have to remind myself to tone down my loud Southern voice, especially when in the company of birders like Tom and Justin. So, I quieted my excited chatter to avoid scaring these rare birds from their perch.

I knew this species was in decline across its range, but Justin informed me that Henslow's Sparrow is "on the upswing in the greater Chicago area due to the spike in prairie restoration efforts in the past few decades" led by CFC volunteers. Taking but a few steps, we saw a second rare animal--the Baltimore Checkerspot--a butterfly that, like the sparrow, somehow had navigated the seemingly endless sea of suburbia, manicured lawns, fields of non-native grasses, crop fields, forested blocks, and pavement, to find, miraculously, this little re-created wildflower oasis. 

Visiting this little prairie with Tom and Justin was inspiring. If we replicate the unique approach being used in Chicago in places like Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina where the vast grasslands disappeared largely by 1750 or the rapidly vanishing Blackland Prairies east of Austin, Texas, then we can reverse the tide of grassland biodiversity loss in the Southeast.

Lesson 3: This visit to Grigsby Prairie taught me my third lesson. As we walked back to the car, I couldn't help but think of the 1989 movie, Field of Dreams, and I said aloud, "if we rebuild them, they will come." But importantly, it's not just about planting "native warm season grasses" and it's more than planting a pollinator-friendly mix to attract Monarchs, to truly curb the erosion of our grassland biodiversity we must strive to re-create and restore more species-rich grasslands across the South with the utmost care and attention to detail that our friends in Chicago have been doing for decades...and it's working! 

  Inspired by Poplar Creek Prairie (Late July), Cook County, Illinois, December 2013, Oil on canvas, 24 " x 36", by Philip Juras.    From Philip's website:  "  In this scene, inspired by a late July visit to Poplar Creek Prairie, big bluestem grass has just begun to send its flowering stalks as high as a horse’s back. Also reaching overhead is the robust stalk of a compass plant in full bloom, and stems of the not yet flowering tall tickseed. Lower down are the abundant colorful blooms of the lavender flowering bee balm and bright yellow flowers of the gray-headed coneflower. These two are often seen in recently restored areas of prairie. Also in the foreground is the off-white wild quinine and the not yet flowering stems of stiff goldenrod.    These are only a handful of over one hundred species of prairie plants that have been lovingly restored to this former farm site. Since 1989, the Poplar Prairie Stewards, a project of the Forest Preserves of Cook County, have brought some 600 acres back to a near pre-settlement condition, all centered on a tiny remnant of dry prairie that survived on a gravelly hill on the site. Although it is surrounded by the suburban sprawl of Chicago, when walking through these 600 acres one can almost imagine the vast expanse of prairies and woodlands that once covered this part of Illinois ." (Juras 2013)

Inspired by Poplar Creek Prairie (Late July), Cook County, Illinois, December 2013, Oil on canvas, 24 " x 36", by Philip Juras.

From Philip's website:  "In this scene, inspired by a late July visit to Poplar Creek Prairie, big bluestem grass has just begun to send its flowering stalks as high as a horse’s back. Also reaching overhead is the robust stalk of a compass plant in full bloom, and stems of the not yet flowering tall tickseed. Lower down are the abundant colorful blooms of the lavender flowering bee balm and bright yellow flowers of the gray-headed coneflower. These two are often seen in recently restored areas of prairie. Also in the foreground is the off-white wild quinine and the not yet flowering stems of stiff goldenrod.

These are only a handful of over one hundred species of prairie plants that have been lovingly restored to this former farm site. Since 1989, the Poplar Prairie Stewards, a project of the Forest Preserves of Cook County, have brought some 600 acres back to a near pre-settlement condition, all centered on a tiny remnant of dry prairie that survived on a gravelly hill on the site. Although it is surrounded by the suburban sprawl of Chicago, when walking through these 600 acres one can almost imagine the vast expanse of prairies and woodlands that once covered this part of Illinois." (Juras 2013)


Part 4 of 6 - urban or wild, either will work just fine

Lesson 4 -- visit to Somme Prairie

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Lesson 4. Urban or wild, either will work just fine

Efforts in the greater Chicago area prove that great grassland restoration can happen both in rural areas and in the heart of one of the nation's largest cities. SGI aims to bring similar approaches to dozens of communities across our 23 state region, including Austin, TX and Charlotte, NC.

 Tom Vanderpoel (1951-2017)

Tom Vanderpoel (1951-2017)

By the time we left Grigsby Prairie, it was getting past 3:00 p.m. and Tom needed to part ways. Unfortunately, we could not have known that our visit with Tom would be our last. Just a week later, I learned that he passed away peacefully in his sleep. The world lost a special person in Tom Vanderpoel. I only knew him for a few hours that one day and the impression he left upon me and our developing organization and the lessons he unknowingly taught me are things I will carry with me as I attempt to grow and lead the Southeastern Grasslands Initiative. I only wish I could have known Tom longer and that I could have been mentored by him.   

After saying goodbye to Tom, Justin called up Stephen Packard to see if he would be up for an impromptu late afternoon visit. Soon we were driving through a quaint neighborhood on our way to Stephen's house. Some of the lawns were shaded with large Bur Oaks, whose heavy spreading crowns and knotty boles indicated to me that the area was once covered in Bur Oak savannas. Philip's painting below suggests what Stephen's neighborhood likely looked like prior to settlement.

  Bur Oak, Flint Creek Savanna, Lake County, Illinois, July 11, 2017, Oil on canvas, 10 x 16 in, by Philip Juras.    Some of the trees near Stephen Packard's neighborhood were old-growth bur oaks. The spreading growth form of these ancient trees comes from the fact that they have grown for 2-3 centuries among open, fire-maintained savannas where they can spread their branches. 

Bur Oak, Flint Creek Savanna, Lake County, Illinois, July 11, 2017, Oil on canvas, 10 x 16 in, by Philip Juras.

Some of the trees near Stephen Packard's neighborhood were old-growth bur oaks. The spreading growth form of these ancient trees comes from the fact that they have grown for 2-3 centuries among open, fire-maintained savannas where they can spread their branches. 

Up ahead I saw one yard that stood out at a distance. I could see coneflowers, sunflowers, compass plants, and prairie grasses stretching from the front door to the sidewalk. I knew that must be Stephen's house.

For a while we sat and visited in his living room, eating fresh cherries. I told him about SGI and that the reason I came to Chicago was to see firsthand the conservation and restoration efforts he had spearheaded. He took us back a few decades with a nostalgic tale about how up until the 1970s many people thought that most of the remnants were gone.

While it is true that more than 99.9 percent of the region's original prairies have been eliminated, that didn't stop Stephen and his friends from scouring the land in search of tiny bits that remained. They found little vestiges in old cemeteries, along rural roadbanks, sandwiched between highways and adjacent railroads, or occupying spots too rocky or wet to cultivate. "These tiny remnants that we were rediscovering became the seed source for most of the restorations in the region including those you've seen today at Grigsby and Spring Creek, but," he added, "perhaps the best restoration that you have yet to see is Somme Prairie, a few blocks away."

Although I was tired from having arrived into town about 3:00 a.m. the night before and was running on just a few hours of sleep, I knew I had to see Somme Prairie. We hopped in the car and drove a few blocks away and parked along the curbside of Meadow Road in a 1960-70s-era suburban neighborhood. "Where's the prairie?" I asked incredulously. Stephen pointed towards a four-lane highway about 100 yards down the street.

As a pretty decent ecologist, I pride myself on being able to spot prairie and savanna remnants, yet there was nothing I could see from where we parked that gave me any notion that we were about to see what Stephen described as one of the best prairie restorations in the Midwest. 

  Somme Prairie is located at the end of this street, just beyond the trees that line the main highway in the background.

Somme Prairie is located at the end of this street, just beyond the trees that line the main highway in the background.

When we got to the intersection I expected to see bunch grasses, wildflowers, something, but all I could see was the highway and a wall of trees on the other side. "Watch for cars," Stephen warned as he started across the highway. Justin and I followed eagerly.

On the other side we weaved our way through head-high vegetation along what resembled a game trail. Stephen dipped through a gap in the thicket. My tall frame ducked and dodged tree limbs and briers. From the highway I had mistaken it for a dense forest, but when I finally got through the wall of vegetation after only a few yards, I straightened my back and lifted my head. The passing cars just 50 feet away now seemed barely audible against the chattering and chirping sounds of songbirds and the rattling of the tall grasses and wildflowers waving in the breeze. This was Somme Prairie....  I felt as though I had stepped into the Garden of Eden. 

 

Stephen proceeded to give me a brief overview of the site, explaining that 30 years ago it had been a dense, brushy thicket. He and a dozen volunteers from the community began a long-term, sustained effort to restore Somme. You can hear Stephen tell this story by watching his TedX Talk titled "Nature is Counting on Us."

As he gave me an overview of the site, I interrupted occasionally to ask a question about a new plant I spotted. I was like a kid in a candy store and I could hardly contain my excitement. To Justin, my exuberant, clambering style must have contrasted sharply with Stephen's quiet, soft-spoken ways.

"Whoa Stephen, is that such and such? Wow. Did it come back after removing the brush or did you have to reintroduce it?"  He assured me that most of what I was seeing had been brought back using locally harvested seeds because most of the original seedbank had been depleted in the decades that the site lay shrouded in forest. When they began their restoration, they found the site still had several of those ancient bur oaks but the rich diversity of grasses and forbs that centuries ago dominated the ground floor were gone. 

 A volunteer of Chicago's Forest Preserve program clears invasive brush in what was historically a bur oak savanna. Notice the scattered large oak trunks in the background. As these shrubs are removed, volunteers pave the way for restoring hundreds of species of grasses, sedges, wildflowers, and native prairie shrubs to this site where they have been absent for a century.

A volunteer of Chicago's Forest Preserve program clears invasive brush in what was historically a bur oak savanna. Notice the scattered large oak trunks in the background. As these shrubs are removed, volunteers pave the way for restoring hundreds of species of grasses, sedges, wildflowers, and native prairie shrubs to this site where they have been absent for a century.

Stephen seemed pleased to be in my company for he could see that as a professional botanist with an expertise in high-quality grassland communities that I just couldn't believe my eyes. I couldn't believe that what I was seeing had been almost totally rebuilt with seeds from more than 450 species. As Stephen's TedX Talk reveals, they even have been successful in restoring populations of the Eastern Prairie Fringed Orchid (Platanthera leucophaea), one of the rarest orchids in the eastern U.S., whose white flower stands out almost like a ghost to remind us of the past.

As we wound our way through the trail system at Somme, I enjoyed testing Stephen. We stopped at one point a couple dozen yards ahead of a low, wet swale. I said, "now if I were in a totally natural remnant I would expect to walk up to that swale and see a whole suite of species [I rattled off a short list of those I most expected]." I was dumbfounded when as we approached it I found them all, right as I had predicted and growing intermixed as if they had been there for hundreds of years. The same happened several more times as we hit various microhabitats such as shrub thickets, wet meadows, and dry oak woodland. They even had found ways to restore short grasslands, which really blew me away.

Lesson 4: My fourth lesson of the day came from brief visit to Somme Prairie. In addition to being inspired beyond belief, I learned that even in the middle of dense urban areas, it is possible to rebuild grassland communities such that, even though they can never return to their original condition, they can be re-created in such a way as to fool professionals into believing that they are natural remnants. That is a very difficult thing to do and is a true testament to the quality of the restorations of the Chicago area and to Stephen's leadership and vision. SGI is currently working near downtown Nashville with several partners with the intent of restoring approximately 350 acres of grassland on a new 900 acre city park. Somme Prairie proves that we don't have to escape the city to rebuild something incredible. 

Somme Prairie in Chicago is in the heart of one of America's largest cities. More than 450 species grow in this urban refuge. This example provides hope to dozens of major cities across the Southeast that once supported important grasslands that we can restore high-quality grasslands in both wild and urban landscapes.


PART 5 OF 6 - THE SKY IS THE LIMIT

lessons 5 -- visit to the nachusa grasslands

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Lesson 5. The sky is the limit

The Chicago-style methods of restoration can be applied to sites smaller than 1 acre or they can be scaled up to cover several square miles. It can be done in the Southeast as well and SGI will lead the way. Let's dream big and find a way to rebuild grasslands that stretch to the horizon. 

On Day 2 of my trip, I traveled two hours west of Chicago to the Nachusa Grasslands managed by The Nature Conservancy. My host at Nachusa was Cody Considine, a restoration ecologist for TNC. We hopped in his pickup truck and he drove me out across the vast expanse of rolling prairie so beautifully captured by Philip Juras's paintings. Nachusa happens to be one of his favorite places to paint and after my visit I certainly can see why.

This 3,700 acre re-created tallgrass prairie has Bison roaming across 1,500 acres. I could not believe that when I was just five years old, in 1983, that this rich prairie that spread before me to the horizon had been rolling fields of corn and that almost everything I was viewing had been rebuilt, except for a few hilltop natural remnants in rocky soil.

Astonishingly, many of the same methods used to rebuild small-scale prairies in the Chicago suburbs were used to rebuild Nachusa. As we toured the site, it was neat to round a corner and find a small group of seven or eight volunteers harvesting seeds of prairie plants in some remote corner of the preserve. Even though Nachusa is two hours from Chicago, they still have a strong team of local volunteers who show up faithfully to help ensure that Nachusa thrives for decades to come. This provides hope that in more rural areas of the Southeast, such as eastern Arkansas's Grand Prairie (down from 500,000 acres historically to now just 375 acres) or south Georgia's remnant chalk prairies.

 Volunteers hand-collecting seeds from prairie species.

Volunteers hand-collecting seeds from prairie species.

Cody explained how their team of volunteers are empowered and entrusted to take on leadership roles. For example, one husband and wife volunteer team has "adopted" a few acres of Nachusa. Under this model, they assume something akin to ownership of their small plot. After receiving some up-front training and instruction when they first started years ago, they now manage and plan all of the activities on their plot. This means they collect seeds from it, they help to control invasive plants, they choose which species to re-seed, and then they work to spread seeds using the overseeding method.

Undoubtedly, a lot of people might be uncomfortable with allowing non-professionals to take on such leadership roles, but after seeing it in action, I am convinced that this is an important and overlooked strategy that we must adopt for managing certain areas. The key is providing proper educational training on the front end.

Lesson 5: The fifth and final lesson I learned from my whirlwind Chicago tour is that high-quality grassland restoration driven by empowered and trained volunteers can absolutely be scaled up from tiny remnants of less than acre to tracts covering several square miles...it can be done...and it will be done. 


PART 6 OF 6 - SGI NEEDS YOUR HELP, HERE'S HOW

We called, you answered: At the beginning of 2018, we put out a call for volunteers to join our team and the response has been amazing. Now, six months after the official launch of our organization, it warms my heart to announce that more than 400 volunteers have pledged their support. Collectively, you represent all 23 states and more than 60 communities. Thank you for taking that first step of signing our registry. Help us recruit new volunteers by sharing our message with friends, family, and colleagues.

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A brief explanation of our model:  We believe that community-led conservation is vital to saving our vanishing southeastern grasslands. Major financial investments are critical to large-scale conservation efforts across broad regions (e.g. purchasing large properties, restoring thousands of acres) and to providing core infrastructure (e.g. staffing, equipment, resource) needed to guide those efforts. However, so many of the remaining grasslands of the southeastern U.S. are small and it can be difficult to justify to philanthropic foundations, corporate sponsors, and government agencies (who may want "more bang for their buck") why funding small-scale grassland conservation is important.  Unfortunately, many of these small remnants are all that is left for some types of grassland ecosystems and we simply can't turn our backs on them. These types of grasslands, those that are small, hard to manage, located in or near urban areas, in need of frequent attention, are especially well-suited to volunteer-led efforts like those we have studied in Chicago. 

The Chicago-style model of conservation proves that grassroots, community-led approaches work and indeed the best grassland restorations seem to be those that are largely volunteer-driven. This model requires strong communication, organization, and coordination at local and regional scales. It must be guided by science and work prioritized according to threats, opportunities, and need (similar to emergency room triage). SGI's Grassland Advisory Committee will help to identify and prioritize conservation needs both throughout the 23-state focal region and within each ecoregion.

 Map showing concept of how SGI will function at a regional level, here showing a focus on North Carolina. Colored polygons equal ecoregions (yellow=Atlantic Coastal Plain; orange=Piedmont; red=Blue Ridge Mountains; purple=central Ridge and Valley; dark red=southern Ridge and Valley).  Volunteers  will work in teams (red dots), or individually, and will work on grassland projects in their communities (larger orange circles). In time, each volunteer team will be guided by a  Steward  (also a volunteer position but one willing to take on a leadership/coordination role). So far, we have identified stewards for three communities (yellow dots) but in time all communities will be in need of a steward. Stewards may guide the work of one to several groups of volunteers. Stewards and their volunteer teams will work at local levels, within communities.

Map showing concept of how SGI will function at a regional level, here showing a focus on North Carolina. Colored polygons equal ecoregions (yellow=Atlantic Coastal Plain; orange=Piedmont; red=Blue Ridge Mountains; purple=central Ridge and Valley; dark red=southern Ridge and Valley). Volunteers will work in teams (red dots), or individually, and will work on grassland projects in their communities (larger orange circles). In time, each volunteer team will be guided by a Steward (also a volunteer position but one willing to take on a leadership/coordination role). So far, we have identified stewards for three communities (yellow dots) but in time all communities will be in need of a steward. Stewards may guide the work of one to several groups of volunteers. Stewards and their volunteer teams will work at local levels, within communities.

Local Coordination:  First, we are asking for people who are willing to commit time each week to serving in a volunteer leadership/coordination role as a steward. Stewards will help to cultivate and guide a team or multiple teams of volunteers that will work at the local level on one or more projects. 

Individual team members (Volunteers) can choose the role that best fits them (see roles below). For a small town, one steward and a few dozen volunteers may be sufficient. In larger cities multiple stewards and hundreds of volunteers may be needed. Stewards and volunteers will mostly work on projects within 30 min to 1 hour of of their homes. 

Regional Coordination:  At larger statewide and regional scales, SGI will hire Coordinators who will work with multiple stewards across many communities and often across state lines, usually within ecoregions (colored polygons in the accompanying map). The coordinators will assist in training, outreach, finding and securing resources, soliciting help from other NGOs, agencies, and experts, and will circulate around the region to assist with on-the-ground projects, working side-by-side with volunteers and stewards. 


Am I a suitable volunteer for SGI?  Whether you are 9 or 90, a city-dweller or wild child of the wilderness, a high-school dropout or a doctor, and no matter if you live on the coast, the mountains of Appalachia, or on the plains of central Texas, SGI has a role for you. To sign up as a volunteer just click the button below and don't forget to share with your friends.

Am I suitable as a steward for SGI?  If you are a person who enjoys leading by example, performing a variety of tasks, and have strong leadership skills (e.g., good at motivating, inspiring, organizing, planning, delegating, communicating, and most importantly DOING)--then you might have just what it takes. So far we have had 12 people who have indicated they want to be a steward, but we need more. Potential stewards should carefully consider if this is something they have time and the desire to do. If you are ready to commit then we need you! Once committed, we ask you to commit to one year of service for starters, with the option to continue beyond that. Click the button become a steward.


Each icon below illustrates a different type of volunteer opportunity with SGI!

Do you need help selecting a volunteer role or roles? 

We are working to put into place a series of volunteer roles that will appeal to a broad swath of the public. For starters, we've listed several questions below to help you identify the specific role or roles you'd like to play. 

Enjoy studying, observing, or photographing wildflowers, birds, butterflies, etc.?

  • Biodiversity Documentation

Enjoy growing native plants or farming?

  • Conservation Horticulture, Farming Natives.

Interested in how technology or geographic information systems (GIS) can benefit grassland conservation?

  • Data Entry, Mapping

Interested in science or data analysis? 

  • Research, Monitoring 

Do you want to do something that is physically challenging? Like getting dirty, hot, and sweaty?

  • Invasive Species Removal, Management, Restoration

Like working in a large group setting?

  • Seed Collecting, Invasive Species Removal, Management, Restoration, Data Entry, Herbarium Work, Rescue

Rather work alone or in small groups?

  • Biodiversity Documentation, Data Entry, Herbarium Work, Historical Research, Mapping

Do you have special skills as a fundraiser, connector, teacher, public speaker, artist, marketer, graphic designer, videographer, photographer, etc.?

  • Advocacy, Connector, Teaching, Speaker Bureau, etc.


Podcast from Roan Mountain Radio about "Old-Growth Grasslands"

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Listen to Roan Mountain Radio's Ken Turner interview SGI Director, Dr. Dwayne Estes, about the Southeastern Grasslands Initiative.

Click here to listen: https://s3.amazonaws.com/…/RMR-079-Old-Growth-Grasslands-a-…

Dr. Estes will be joining several invited speakers at Roan Mountain State Park's Winter Naturalists' Rally, February 17, 2018.

For more information about the grasslands of Roan Mountain see the SGI website (https://www.segrasslands.org/southeastern-grasslands-1/) and to register for the Winter Naturalists' Rally go online go towww.friendsofroanmtn.org

 

#6 Southern Ridge and Valley Dolomite Seep

Southern Ridge and Valley Dolomite Seep, Campbell Co., TN. This community consists of a weird mix of species. On the margins one finds Northern White Cedar (Thuja occidentalis) and Interior Bushy St. Johnswort (Hypericum interior). But in the seep itself, which may have qualities of a barren, there are "prairie species" such as Prairie Dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum). Credit: Aaron Floden.

The term "grassland" is broadly used to refer to natural communities where the ground layer of vegetation is dominated by grasses, graminoids (grass-like plants), and forbs, though shrubs, tree saplings, scattered trees, mosses, lichens, and even bare rock or soil may be present to varying degrees. Everyone is familiar with the nearly treeless tallgrass prairies of the Midwestern U.S. but the southeastern U.S. is home to many atypical grasslands that many, if not most, people would walk by and dismiss as grasslands. Although many atypical grasslands may not look "prairie-like" or "savanna-like" one thing that connects them is the presence of sun-loving herbaceous species, many of which often grow in typical grasslands. In the Ridge and Valley ecoregion of southwestern Virginia, east Tennessee, northwestern Georgia, and northeast and central Alabama, dolomite and limestone seep communities represent one of these atypical grasslands.

These seeps occur on steep to moderate slopes and percolate out of cracks in the dolomite bedrock. Credit: Aaron Floden.

These tiny open wetlands occur on steep to moderately sloping seepage slopes in hilly, dissected landscapes. Springs bubble out of the sides of hill slopes through cracks in the underlying dolomite bedrock and flow over shallow gravelly or rocky slopes. Sometimes deeper sediments accumulate toward the bottom of seeps. Due to the shallow soils and constant seepage, trees are prevented from growing too large because these slopes are subjected to slumping or slope creep. However, just outside the seepage zone, where slope creep is not as prevalent, sediments may be moist or dry, but tend to accumulate to deeper depths. These deeper-soiled areas support forests or woodlands.

Trees can't grow to large sizes in these seeps, but a variety of small- to medium-sized shrubs, herbs, graminoids (=grasses, sedges, and rushes), and mosses are able to endure the shallow, saturated soils.

The term "fen" is often used for a wide variety of open, groundwater-fed wetlands. Traditionally it has been applied to wetlands underlain by calcareous/mafic bedrock with alkaline or circumneutral pH and mucky sediments. In recent decades there has been a growing realization that such communities are not always easy to separate from wetlands with acidic soils, some of which are called acid seeps or bogs. Due to this lack of a clear-cut difference based on soil/groundwater chemistry, some ecologists advocate calling the wide variety of groundwater-fed seepage wetlands fens. Those that are more on the alkaline end of the spectrum are called "rich fens" and tend to have a greater dominance by broadleaf herbs and grasses and usually lack Sphagnum (peat) moss. Those that are more acidic are often called "poor fens" and tend to have more coverage by sedges and ferns, and Sphagnum is often abundant or dominant. These wetlands of the Southern Ridge and Valley would tend to fit into the "rich fen" type.

Rich fens themselves vary tremendously across the eastern U.S. depending on such variables as topography, slope, depth to bedrock, substrate (muck soils, gravel), etc. Sometimes the term "fen" is reserved for those wetlands in level to gently sloping sites where sediments may become fairly deep. In these situations, sediments are rich in organic matter and become dark, often blackish, and are smooth (not gritty or fibrous) when rubbed between the fingers. Many 20th century ecologists describe fens such as this as occurring mostly in the northeastern U.S. in regions formerly covered by glaciers during the last ice age.

These deep-soiled rich fens do occur in unglaciated regions south of the glacial boundary, in parts of the Southeast and lower Midwest. Two exceptional examples include Grasshopper Hollow Fen in the Missouri Ozarks and Bluff Mountain Fen in the Blue Ridge Mountains of northwestern North Carolina. These deep-soiled calcareous or mafic fens will be described in more detail in future blog posts...stay tuned.

Above: Fens are considered by many ecologists to be groundwater-fed wetlands in basins, flats, and other topographic lows, that tend to have alkaline pH (due to calcareous or mafic bedrock), organic mucky soils, and dominated by graminoids, forbs and shrubs. The best known classic fens are in the glaciated regions of the northeastern U.S. and eastern Canada, but some large classic fens occur in the Southeastern Grasslands Initiative focal area such as Bluff Mountain Fen, Ashe Co., North Carolina (above left, credit, Alan Weakley) and Grasshopper Hollow Fen, Reynolds Co., Missouri (above right, credit, Jim Rathert, Missouri Dept. of Conservation).

In the meantime, the terms seep, seepage wetland, seepage glade, or seepage fen are used for similar wetlands that lack substantial organic soils due to shallow depth to bedrock or abundant bedrock exposures that tend to occur on slopes. These seeps when developed over limestone or dolomite, or mafic or ultramafic metamorphic rocks tend to be alkaline. Those over granite, gneiss, sandstone, and chert tend to be acidic. The Southern Ridge and Valley Dolomite Seep community described here would fit the alkaline type and is developed on shallower soils. Therefore, I advocate referring to these natural openings as seeps and reserve the term fen for the deeper soiled examples. Again, more on these later....

Strongly sloping groundwater-fed calcareous wetlands occur in scattered places across the Southeast, such as this one in Lewis Co., Tennessee. Such sites are sometimes called Seepage Fens or simply Seeps but differ in important ways from deeper-soil fens described above. Credit: Dwayne Estes.

Calcareous hillslope seep communities are found at just a few areas within the Southeastern Grasslands Initiative focal area, including parts of the Missouri and Arkansas Ozarks, the Outer Bluegrass of southern Ohio, the Interior Plateaus of central Tennessee, and the Ridge and Valley from western Virginia south to central Alabama.

No matter where they occur, they all tend to provide refuge for numerous rare plants (including a few that are endemic to these open seeps), rare insects (e.g. dragonflies) and a wide diversity of aquatic macroinvertebrates, salamanders, and aquatic snails. 

Aaron "Golden-Boy" Floden Discovers a Botanical Goldmine

In my last year of graduate school at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville in 2007, I received a phone call from Mark Mayfield, botanist at Kansas State University. Mark explained how one of his undergraduate students, Aaron Floden, was about to move to Knoxville and described him as one of the most talented botanists he had ever seen. I told Mark we would make room for him in the herbarium and looked forward to Aaron being a part of our Tennessee botany family.

Aaron Floden (right) works with staff of the University of Tennessee documenting flora of an incredible seep discovered by Aaron about 10 years ago. Credit: Ed E. Schilling.

When Aaron moved to Knoxville he made an immediate impact on Tennessee botany. It was about that same time that Google had just introduced Google's "Street View." In fact, it was Aaron who first showed Street View to me. While playing around with it, he began using Street View to explore Tennessee's backroads from the comfort of his office.

One of the first projects Aaron embarked upon after moving to Knoxville was attempting to rediscover the rare Needleleaf Beaksedge (Rhynchospora capillacea). This sedge had not been seen in Tennessee since the early 1930s when it was last collected about 40 miles north of Knoxville in an area that now mostly lies beneath Norris Lake, a large lake dammed as part of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal projects. 

While "virtually-cruising" the backroads of Campbell County, Tennessee, Aaron was intrigued by one open area along the side of a rural backroad. Thinking about it now, it's kind of surprising to me that one of Google's cars would have even been on that dead-end road. He saw an area with an open canopy just a few feet off the road that looked like a seepage wetland.

Google Earth street view image of the initial seep discovered by Aaron Floden in Campbell Co., Tennessee. He found this seep first by using Google Earth street view to do a "virtual backroad survey." Credit: Google Earth.

Not long after, Aaron jumped in the car and drove up to the site. What he found was incredible. Stepping about 20 feet off the roadside, he found an open dolomite seep. The seep was quite large and originated upslope about 100-200 feet and was about 30 feet wide. The portion higher on the slope was surrounded by forest but no trees were rooted in the seep itself. The lower half of the seep was beneath a small utility-line right-of-way.

Hypericum interior (Inland Bushy St. Johnswort) dominates the margins and interiors of some seeps. Credit: Aaron Floden.

Around the margins of the open seep, the dominant shrub was an exceptionally narrow-leaved form of what most people previously had called Bushy St. Johnswort (Hypericum densiflorum), but he realized it was likely a forgotten species long ago recognized by J.K. Small as Hypericum interior.

Aaron's discovery of this complex of previously unexplored seeps was initiated by his desire to rediscover the Needleleaf Beakrush (Rhynchospora capillacea) (above). He found it on his first day of looking for it in Campbell Co., TN and had not been seen in TN since the 1930s. Credit: Aaron Floden

In the middle of the seep, the vegetation was quite short and throughout were little hummocks. And there on the little mossy mats was the Needleleaf Beaksedge (Rhynchospora capillacea) that initially had inspired his search. And, it was there in abundance. Just like that, he rediscovered a lost species that no Tennessee botanist really thought would be rediscovered. Most of us had assumed the population last observed in the 1930s was submerged beneath Norris Lake.

But, Aaron's big day was just beginning. Growing there among the tussocks of the Needleleaf Beaksedge was a small white-flowered "lily" with narrow strap-like leaves and a sticky stem. He instantly recognized it as Sticky False Asphodel (Triantha glutinosa), a species not previously known from Tennessee. This find is what botanists call a "state record."  Interestingly, both the Sticky False Asphodel and the Needleleaf Beaksedge, are northern species that are near their southern range limit in North America in Tennessee. They are more common in the fens of the northeastern U.S. and eastern Canada.

One of the other cool plants Aaron found on that eventful day was this small white-flowered "lily"--the Sticky False Asphodel (Triantha glutinosa). This represented one of numerous state records found by Aaron in these dolomite seeps. Credit: Aaron Floden.

It takes a sharp botanist to be able to notice what Aaron observed next. Across the open seep are numerous graminoids. The term "graminoid" is just a catch-all term for a "grass-like" plant and includes grasses, sedges, and rushes. In Tennessee alone, there are more than 150 species of sedge in the genus Carex and it takes a honed eye to be able to identify many of them to species. But Aaron noticed that this seep was home to two really significant sedges that turned out to be new state records. These included the Interior Sedge (Carex interior) and Rigid Sedge (Carex tetanica).  

No doubt, Aaron must have been on a botanical high as he slowly worked his way upslope through the magnificent seep. I, myself, have been in similar situations and you have to almost catch your breath because cool stuff and new discoveries are coming at you from all sides. It can be hard to slow down and process it all. Throughout the seep one of the dominant plants was the Large-leaved Grass-of-Parnassus (Parnassia grandifolia). This gorgeous fall-blooming plant is stunning with its green-veined petals. It is rare in Tennessee and throughout most of the South, but was doing great at this seep.

Large-leaved Grass of Parnassus (Parnassia grandifolia) dominates some dolomite seeps. This is one of several rare species tracked by the Tennessee Division of Natural Areas. Credit: Aaron Floden.

Reaching the top of the seep, Aaron found a small straggling shrub that seemed unusual. After studying it for a bit he concluded that it was the rare Alderleaf Buckthorn (Rhamnus alnifolia), which had only been found in Tennessee a couple of other times at just a couple of other sites.

Alderleaf Buckthorn (Rhamnus alnifolia) is a rare shrub that prior to Aaron's discovery of numerous populations had been known only from a couple of old records. Credit: Aaron Floden

Having been to this seep myself later with Aaron, I remember vividly the view looking down from the top of the seep and being amazed at the incredible diversity and assortment of rare and disjunct plants. Looking back downslope, Aaron observed that the most dominant plant in the entire seep was actually the most significant find of all. 

Throughout the seep was a fairly robust herb with broad, stiff, tri-lobed leaves and a lean stem topped by rounded clusters of white flowers. He instantly recognized the plants to belong to a genus known as Trautvetteria (Tassel-Rue or Bugbane)In the eastern U.S. the Carolina Tassel-Rue (Trautvetteria caroliniensis) is occasional along streambanks, in seeps, and other wet habitats. Aaron realized these plants differed in having fewer leaf lobes and in their coarse texture and leaves held in a different position. He realized that he had just discovered a totally new species.

The most significant discovery Aaron made was the discovery of a completely new species to science (the leafy plant pictured above) that is known only from 4 counties in Tennessee north of Knoxville and nowhere else worldwide. Aaron Floden formally named this species in November 2017 and it is called Trautvetteria fonticalcarea. Left and center photos by Aaron Floden; right photo by Edward E. Schilling.

I remember being a little envious of Aaron's remarkable discovery. Certainly I was proud for him but I couldn't help but fantasize about being there myself. Aaron made such a big impact at the University of Tennessee Herbarium and in Tennessee botany in general that he easily won the favor of the herbarium director, Dr. Eugene Wofford. In fact, Dr. Wofford referred to him as "The Second Coming."  A few years before Aaron got to UT, my fellow PhD lab-mate, Joey Shaw, had enjoyed being the favorite of Dr. Wofford. Then, when I arrived in 2003, Joey kidded that I had replaced him as Dr. Wofford's favorite. But, when Aaron came in with a bang, he became the new favorite. Joey and I began to refer to him as the "Golden Boy." To those of us lucky enough to call Aaron a good friend, we like to refer to him as Aaron "Golden" Floden, or simple "Goldie."

The Tennessee Valley Authority has funded efforts by Aaron Floden and Adam Dattilo (TVA) to locate and study dolomite seeps of the Powell River Watershed. Credit: Aaron Floden.

After that discovery, Goldie went on to find dozens of other seeps across a four-county area (Anderson, Campbell, Claiborne, Union) of upper east Tennessee, including nearly two-dozen populations of the new Tassel-Rue. In fact, just about a month ago, Aaron and Dr. Ed E. Schilling (his PhD advisor at UT) formally named this new species after several years of research. It was named Trautvetteria fonticalcarea, reflecting the calcareous seeps to which it is endemic. This cool new species is only found in Tennessee and nowhere else worldwide. Prior to its discovery, it was part of a special club of about of 100 species of plants that botanists know about that are restricted to grasslands and grassland-related habitats. 

Recently, Aaron has been working with Tennessee Valley Authority botanist, Adam Dattilo, to search for and study more of these seeps within the Powell River watershed. They have found many populations of rare plants never before documented and have determined that this particular dolomite seep community represents a new community type, not previously described or recognized by community ecologists. Some of these seeps have prairie species, like Prairie Dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), and other unexpected species. They have even found new populations of the extremely rare Showy Lady's Slipper Orchid (Cypripedium reginae). 

Showy Lady's Slipper Orchid (Cypripedium reginae) is one of the most spectacular species found in the Southern Ridge and Valley Dolomite Seeps. Aaron has found new populations of this Tennessee endangered species. Credit: Aaron Floden.

While looking for new seeps, they've had to explore a lot of non-seep habitat such as dry to moist calcareous forests and woodlands, which is the matrix habitat in which these seeps are found. In these woods they've found new populations of Northern White Cedar (Thuja occidentalis) and discovered three additional new state record species for Tennessee, White Rattlesnake Root (Nabalus albus), Wood's Sedge (Carex woodii), and Mountain Ricegrass (Patis racemosa).

Three new state record species found by Aaron Floden during his survey of dolomite seeps in the Powell River Watershed. These are species found in adjacent rocky woods outside of the seeps. Left: White Rattlesnake Root (Nabalus albus); Center: Mountain Ricegrass (Patis racemosa);Right: Wood's Sedge (Carex woodii). Credit: Aaron Floden.

Aaron continues to work on studying this rare community, in spite of the fact that he has gone on to St. Louis to work for the Missouri Botanical Garden as Flora of Missouri Curator. But his work takes him well outside Missouri to most parts of the Southeast and he even frequently goes on expeditions to east Asia (China, north Vietnam) where has discovered several species, including a new genus. His incredible work highlights just how much continued baseline surveys are needed to better understand our natural world.

These open wetlands are mostly in private ownership. Their small size makes them very susceptible to invasion by invasive species or to degradation by any number of factors. Unfortunately, we will never know just how much of this community we have lost because there were certainly seeps that now are beneath Norris Lake and we may have lost populations of species that no longer occur in the state that are known from similar seep communities farther northeast in Virginia--we will never know.

  This open gap in the forest was once home to a thriving seep but has been destroyed by bulldozing. The small size of these Southern Ridge and Valley Dolomite Seeps makes them susceptible to these activities and because they are so tiny it doesn't take much to wipe them out. Credit: Ed E. Schilling.

This open gap in the forest was once home to a thriving seep but has been destroyed by bulldozing. The small size of these Southern Ridge and Valley Dolomite Seeps makes them susceptible to these activities and because they are so tiny it doesn't take much to wipe them out. Credit: Ed E. Schilling.

Thanks to Aaron for making such a great contribution to conservation! I hope I have captured the essence of his discovery and I hope our readers are as inspired by his work as I am.

 

Contributed by: Dwayne Estes

 

 

 

 

#5 Interior Plateaus Limestone Riverscour Glade

 Interior Plateaus Limestone Riverscour Glade, Rock Island State Park, White and Warren counties, Tennessee. Credit: Dwayne Estes.

Interior Plateaus Limestone Riverscour Glade, Rock Island State Park, White and Warren counties, Tennessee. Credit: Dwayne Estes.

In the previous blog post describing the Southeast's super diverse grassland communities, I described the sandstone cobble bars referred to by ecologists as Cumberland Plateau Riverscour. This blog post is dedicated to a related but entirely different community, Highland Rim Limestone Riverscour Glade. 

  This photo shows the two factors that maintain this unusual grassland, soils thin to absent and high degree of flooding (note the driftwood).

This photo shows the two factors that maintain this unusual grassland, soils thin to absent and high degree of flooding (note the driftwood).

This community is a type of glade, which is a rocky grassland/shrubland community that is found along just a few rivers in the Interior Plateaus ecoregion of central and east-central portions of Tennessee and Kentucky, southern Indiana, southern Ohio (?), and historically northern Alabama. 

You may be wondering, "where is the grass?" Unlike most "typical" grasslands which have more grass cover, in this grassland type, the grasses and other herbaceous species characteristic of prairies, savannas, and barrens, are restricted to thin cracks in the limestone bedrock. This community also differs from most "typical" glades in that it occurs alongside rivers. Therefore, it is maintained by two factors. First, its extremely shallow soils and high exposure of bedrock makes it an edaphic grassland. Secondly, due to its position alongside streams it is also subjected to scouring effects of periodic floods.

The best example of Interior Plateaus Limestone Riverscour occurs at Rock Island State Park on the Caney Fork River in White and Warren counties, Tennessee. It may have been more common historically in small thin glade strips farther down the Caney Fork River but Center Hill Lake has impounded most of the lower portion of the river. Just a half-mile upstream from Rock Island is Great Falls Dam, so this natural gem is literally sandwiched between completely altered sections of river.

  Google Earth image of the best Limestone Riverscour Glade complex probably in existence in the southeastern U.S. At lower right is Great Falls Dam. In upper left (out of scene) the river flows around a bend and then the impounded waters of Center Hill Lake are reached. This is a glimpse at what the original riverbed in this section looked like. The best glade is located at far left on the south side of the river. The northern half of the river is in White County and the southern half in Warren County, TN. Source: Google Earth.

Google Earth image of the best Limestone Riverscour Glade complex probably in existence in the southeastern U.S. At lower right is Great Falls Dam. In upper left (out of scene) the river flows around a bend and then the impounded waters of Center Hill Lake are reached. This is a glimpse at what the original riverbed in this section looked like. The best glade is located at far left on the south side of the river. The northern half of the river is in White County and the southern half in Warren County, TN. Source: Google Earth.

When I first visited Rock Island several years ago I was blown away not only by the biodiversity of this community, but also by the abundance of rare species. Not long after, I introduced one of my graduate students, Mason Brock, to the site and we decided he would begin to study the riverscour communities of the Caney Fork River. The Caney Fork originates on the Cumberland Plateau and drops about 1,000 feet in elevation and enters the Interior Plateaus ecoregion. Along its length, it features three distinct types of riverscour: sandstone cobble bar barrens, sandstone glades, and limestone glades.

  Undescribed species, the Cumberland Leatherflower (Clematis sp. nov.), on limestone scour at Rock Island State Park, White Co., TN. Credit: Dwayne Estes.

Undescribed species, the Cumberland Leatherflower (Clematis sp. nov.), on limestone scour at Rock Island State Park, White Co., TN. Credit: Dwayne Estes.

Mason studied all three types and found that the limestone scour communities were very different floristically from the sandstone sites. However, a number of uncommon species were found on both sandstone and limestone scour. One of the more notable species that occurs on both the sandstone and limestone sites is an unnamed species that Austin Peay graduate and SGI research associate, Devin Rodgers, and I will be naming soon. It is to be called the Cumberland Leatherflower and is a type of Clematis. It is unique in the region for having long flower stalks and leafy bracts located near the base of the leafstalk.

The large flat glade at Rock Island is divided on its surface by numerous cracks, and the area between the cracks is largely devoid of plants. Within each of the cracks, a number of species compete for space, including such prairie indicators as big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), and little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium).

  Limestone Riverscour Glade, Rock Island State Park, Warren Co., TN. The cracks in the bedrock are densely packed with a small form of big bluestem (Andropogon aff. gerardii) which is also dominant on sandstone cobble bars of the Cumberland Plateau. This big bluestem may be an undescribed species or variety unique to riverscour. Pringle's Aster is common in these cracks along with Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Bushy St. John's-wort (Hypericum interior), False Dragonhead (Physostegia virginiana var. praemorsa), Aromatic Aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium),  and Carolina Willow (Salix caroliniana). Credit: Dwayne Estes.

Limestone Riverscour Glade, Rock Island State Park, Warren Co., TN. The cracks in the bedrock are densely packed with a small form of big bluestem (Andropogon aff. gerardii) which is also dominant on sandstone cobble bars of the Cumberland Plateau. This big bluestem may be an undescribed species or variety unique to riverscour. Pringle's Aster is common in these cracks along with Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Bushy St. John's-wort (Hypericum interior), False Dragonhead (Physostegia virginiana var. praemorsa), Aromatic Aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium),  and Carolina Willow (Salix caroliniana). Credit: Dwayne Estes.

  Pringle's Aster (Symphyotrichum pilosum var. pringlei is known only from this single site in Tennessee. Credit: Dwayne Estes.

Pringle's Aster (Symphyotrichum pilosum var. pringlei is known only from this single site in Tennessee. Credit: Dwayne Estes.

Numerous rare or uncommon species occur in the cracks, including white prairie clover (Dalea candida), Pringle's aster (Symphyotrichum pilosum var. pringlei), blue wild indigo (Baptisia australis), Shining Bluestar (Amsonia illustris), and stiff goldenrod (Solidago rigida). In fact the aster is the only place in all of Tennessee for what is mostly a northern/Midwestern aster.

Water from both rain and floods often pools on the flat limestone bedrock creating small ephemeral wetlands. Many typical species of marshes and open wetlands are found in the cracks that are adjacent to these wet pools, including many sedges, rushes, and even a couple of beakrushes (Rhynchospora glomerata), the last of which is uncommon in calcareous habitats. Small-headed rush (Juncus brachycephalus) has been reported from these wet limestone glades in the past but has not been seen in more than 40 years. Other rarities include shining ladies-tresses (Spiranthes lucida). Widow's cross (Sedum pulchellum) grows in abundance in the spring when moisture is abundant.

  Pools of water on the open Riverscour Glade add another dimension which provides habitat for dozens of species of wetland plants. The back edge of this glade also provides habitat for calcareous shrub wetlands. Credit: Dwayne Estes.

Pools of water on the open Riverscour Glade add another dimension which provides habitat for dozens of species of wetland plants. The back edge of this glade also provides habitat for calcareous shrub wetlands. Credit: Dwayne Estes.

 Maidenbush ( Phyllanthopsis phyllanthoides) grows in limestone riverscour habitats in central TN. Photo credit: Ketona Dolomite Barrens, Bibb Co., AL by Eric Hunt.

Maidenbush (Phyllanthopsis phyllanthoides) grows in limestone riverscour habitats in central TN. Photo credit: Ketona Dolomite Barrens, Bibb Co., AL by Eric Hunt.

Closer to the river where the rocks have been broken and form a bouldery bank along the water, several other rarities were found. Most notable perhaps is the Maidenbush (Phyallanthopsis phyllanthoides). This rare shrub of the spurge family is most common west of the Mississippi River in the glades of the Ozarks and Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma. Prior to finding it on the Caney Fork River, it had only been documented to occur in three other areas east of the Mississippi River: on dolomite barrens along the Little Cahaba River (Bibb Co., AL) and on sandstone cobble bars of the Locust Fork and Mulberry Fork of the Warrior River (two different rivers in Blount Co., AL).

  Map showing the distribution of Maidenbush (Phyllanthopsis phyllanthoides). Source: http://bonap.net/MapGallery/County/Phyllanthopsis%20phyllanthoides.png.

Map showing the distribution of Maidenbush (Phyllanthopsis phyllanthoides). Source: http://bonap.net/MapGallery/County/Phyllanthopsis%20phyllanthoides.png.

 

The day I first stumbled across the Maidenbush was a day full of discoveries. Growing nearby on the bouldery riverbank was the endangered rock grape (Vitis rupestris), a species with a very similar distribution as Maidenbush that previously had not been seen in Tennessee since the 1880s except for a population found just a couple of years earlier near Clarksville, Tennessee along the Cumberland River by Sunny Fleming, Tianita Duke, and myself.

  Limestone Riverscour Glade along shore of Cumberland River below King and Queen's Bluff in Clarksville, Tennessee. This glade is home to numerous rare species including the endangered rock grape (Vitis rupestris) and prairie grasses such as big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), and eastern gamagrass (Tripsacum dactyloides) line the upper edge of the glade. Credit: Mason Brock. Some of the species found here are known in Tennessee otherwise only from Rock Island State Park about 100 miles to the east, including rock grape and Midwestern Silky Dogwood (Cornus obliqua).

Limestone Riverscour Glade along shore of Cumberland River below King and Queen's Bluff in Clarksville, Tennessee. This glade is home to numerous rare species including the endangered rock grape (Vitis rupestris) and prairie grasses such as big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), and eastern gamagrass (Tripsacum dactyloides) line the upper edge of the glade. Credit: Mason Brock. Some of the species found here are known in Tennessee otherwise only from Rock Island State Park about 100 miles to the east, including rock grape and Midwestern Silky Dogwood (Cornus obliqua).

Limestone scour glades are one of the rarest plant communities in eastern North America. This is due in part to the fact that over the past two centuries damming of rivers or dynamiting of riverbeds to improve navigation has eliminated some of the best sites. 

  Specimen of Orbexilum stipulatum  in the Ravenel Collection, University of South Carolina Herbarium. Credit: University of South Carolina Herbarium.

Specimen of Orbexilum stipulatum in the Ravenel Collection, University of South Carolina Herbarium. Credit: University of South Carolina Herbarium.

The Falls of the Ohio River, long known as a navigational hazard and as a major landmark to Native American tribes and the earliest French and English explorers, was an area of extensive limestone scour near present-day Louisville, Kentucky. It was considered to be an important crossing place for buffalo and Native Americans. Orbexilum stipulatum, one of the relatively few extinct plant species known from eastern North America according to expert Wes Knapp (North Carolina Natural Heritage Program), was discovered at the Falls of the Ohio presumably in limestone scour glades by Dr. Charles W. Short in the 1830s. He made several herbarium collections from the site which he deposited at numerous institutions where they are still preserved to this day. Unfortunately, the species has not been seen since the days of Dr. Short.

Another species at the Falls of the Ohio that is only found at a few other sites worldwide is Short's Goldenrod, named for Dr. Short who was the first person to collect it. Dr. Reed Noss, SGI's Chief Science Advisor and Professor Emeritus of the University of Central Florida, discussed this species in his recent book Forgotten Grasslands of the South. He noted how this species is associated with dry rocky glade-like habitats associated with former buffalo traces. Outside of the Falls of the Ohio, it occurs at the Blue Licks in the Kentucky Bluegrass and on limestone riverscour grasslands along the Blue River in Harrison Co., Indiana.

  Falls of the Ohio State Park, Louisville, Kentucky, used to be an important crossing place over the wide Ohio River. Buffalo traces from the Midwest crossed here leading south into the Bluegrass and Pennyroyal Plain of Kentucky. This is the site from which Charles W. Short collected the now extinct Orbexilum stipulatum (Source:  http://www.arrowssentforth.com/2011/03/falls-of-ohio-state-park.html).

Falls of the Ohio State Park, Louisville, Kentucky, used to be an important crossing place over the wide Ohio River. Buffalo traces from the Midwest crossed here leading south into the Bluegrass and Pennyroyal Plain of Kentucky. This is the site from which Charles W. Short collected the now extinct Orbexilum stipulatum (Source: http://www.arrowssentforth.com/2011/03/falls-of-ohio-state-park.html).

One of the most notable areas of former limestone scour was the Mussel Shoals (often incorrectly spelled Muscle Shoals) along the Tennessee River in north Alabama. The Shoals were formed by a very hard layer of rock known as the Fort Payne Chert. The Mussel Shoals were also an important crossing point on this major river, in fact, it was here that General Andrew Jackson crossed on his way southward to battle the Creek Indians in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. The Shoals were a major navigational hazard where the river fell over 100 feet over a distance of more than 15 miles. This important landmark was drawn on some of the earliest maps of the southeastern U.S., apparently first appearing on French maps drawn about 1720. Perhaps it was in this riverscour habitat that the single record of Virginia Spiraea (Spiraea virginiana) ever reported from Alabama was collected. The Shoals were inundated following construction of Wilson Dam in 1918.

  The red oval highlights the section of the Tennessee River (then referred to by the French as the Cusatees River or the Thegalegos River) on this 1720 French Map. Note within the red oval the river splits and a couple of islands are drawn within it. The shape resembles an eye. This is the Muscle Shoals (or Mussel Shoals). Note just south of the Tennessee River there is the inscription "All Level and Good Ground." This area evidently contained a large grassland immediately south of the river that is gone today.

The red oval highlights the section of the Tennessee River (then referred to by the French as the Cusatees River or the Thegalegos River) on this 1720 French Map. Note within the red oval the river splits and a couple of islands are drawn within it. The shape resembles an eye. This is the Muscle Shoals (or Mussel Shoals). Note just south of the Tennessee River there is the inscription "All Level and Good Ground." This area evidently contained a large grassland immediately south of the river that is gone today.

In coming years, SGI will continue to lead efforts to document what's left of these rare riverside limestone glades and their unique flora. We are planning expeditions to the Little South Fork of the Cumberland River and Buck Creek in Kentucky and to a few other streams in the Mid-South. If you know of similar sites elsewhere across the Southeast we'd love to learn about them. 

Contributed by: Dwayne Estes