lesson 2 -- visit to spring creek prairie
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."
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.
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.