Report from the 2013 Grassland Restoration Network Workshop – Part 1

The Grassland Restoration Network’s annual workshop took place a couple weeks ago in Columbia, Missouri.  This year’s workshop was hosted by the Missouri Department of Conservation and included more than 90 people from around the country.  As always, the meeting was a mixture of presentations, discussions, and field tours, and was informal enough that we had plenty of time to get to know each other and catch up on what everyone has been learning at their own sites.  There were too many topics and discussions from the workshop to cover in a single blog post, so I’ll spread them out over the next several weeks or months.

Attendees of the Grassland Restoration Network's annual workshop at Tucker Prairie, east of Columbia, Missouri.

Attendees of the Grassland Restoration Network’s annual workshop at Tucker Prairie, east of Columbia, Missouri.

One of the most intriguing discussions of the workshop was an extended conversation during our field trip to the 711 acre Prairie Fork Conservation Area, managed by Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC).  At several points during the trip, we talked about objectives for restoration projects and prairie plantings.  Here in the Platte River Prairies, our restoration objective is to use prairie plantings to enlarge and reconnect fragmented remnant prairies – hoping to increase overall ecological resilience and the viability of populations of plants, bees, etc.  At Prairie Fork, however, there are no remnant prairies to stitch together, and education is a major focus of their restoration project.  Their stated restoration goal is simply to rebuild natural communities and their processes.  Then they use those restored areas as platforms for their education work.

Although Prairie Fork Conservation Area is not far from Tucker Prairie – the last remnant of the once vast Grand Prairie that stretched across a large swath of Missouri – MDC staff are not trying to design their plantings to mimic Tucker Prairie.  Instead, they are harvesting seed from Tucker prairie and other small scattered areas of native prairie vegetation to create seed mixtures that are a composite of all of those sites.  As a result, prairie plantings are allowed to develop into communities as local site conditions allow – a very sensible approach.

Rattlesnake master is common at Tucker Prairie, the last sizeable remnant of the Grand Prairie that used to cover a large portion of northern Missouri.

Rattlesnake master is common at Tucker Prairie, the last sizeable remnant of the Grand Prairie that used to cover a large portion of northern Missouri.

The decision not to impose constraints on what each Prairie Fork planting needs to look like gives MDC considerable freedom in terms of evaluating success.  That freedom led to some great discussions about what success should/could look like.  There were three tour stops where the topic came up in some form, and each is worth discussing.

1. The first discussion occurred early in the tour when we were looking at a soybean field that was going to be converted to prairie vegetation within the next few years.  Around the edge of the field were “waste areas” of tall fescue with infestations of sericea lespedeza, autumn olive, and other invasive plants and trees.  Because of the trees and topography, it wasn’t feasible to put those areas into cultivation, which is the technique MDC (and most of us) would prefer as a way to create a clean seed bed prior to planting prairie.  The group starting talking about other ways those areas might be prepared for planting, until Bill Kleiman (with The Nature Conservancy’s Nachusa Grasslands in Illinois) abruptly shifted the discussion.

Bill made the excellent point that those difficult areas wouldn’t necessarily have to be converted to a diverse prairie planting, and that attempting to do so might prove to be overwhelmingly time consuming or simply impossible.  The seedbank of invasives in those areas is probably heavy enough that even multiple years of cultivation might still result in long-term fights with invasive plants emerging from that seedbank long after prairie vegetation was planted.  Instead, Bill suggested, why not implement an annual program of broadcast herbicide spraying in those waste areas – with the simple goal of maintaining them as a low diversity, grass-dominated, plant communities that won’t threaten nearby diverse plantings?  In other words, rather than trying to make those areas perfect, just make them harmless.  Down the road, when everything else is restored, MDC can always come back and spend energy trying to convert them to something diverse.  In the meantime, they can save a lot of time and energy by avoiding a (likely fruitless) battle to convert a very weedy area into a pretty prairie.  It was certainly an interesting proposal.

Rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium) was just beginning to bloom during the GRN workshop.

Rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium) was just beginning to bloom during the GRN workshop.

2. The next site we visited had been planted to prairie vegetation several years earlier, but had a chronic infestation of sericea lespedeza.  While MDC staff was controlling the lespedeza through spot spraying, there was enough lespedeza (and enough spraying) that the area’s plant diversity had become fairly limited and dominated by a few grass and wildflower species.  Chris Newbold, who had been in charge of the restoration work at the time the site was seeded, said that if he had to do it all again, he would have left the area in cultivation a few more years to get better control of the lespdeza population prior to planting.  The more pressing question now, though, was how to deal with the site going forward.  Options included starting over by returning it to cultivation, trying to overseed the area to establish better plant diversity, or just leaving it alone.  An additional proposal was to overseed with plant species that are resistant to a selective herbicide that controls lespedeza, allowing the site to be broadcast sprayed without eliminating all plant diversity.  I don’t think the question was resolved through our discussion, but we built upon our earlier conversation by posing the question, “Does every part of a restoration project have to be ‘perfect’ in order for the project to be successful?”

This portion of Prairie Fork Conservation Area was seeded with a high diversity mixture but has lost plant diversity , at least in part because of years of herbicide spraying for sericea lespedeza.  The lespedeza is spot sprayed, but is abundant enough that herbicide impacts are evident on the plant community.

This portion of Prairie Fork Conservation Area was seeded with a high diversity mixture but has lost plant diversity , at least in part because of years of herbicide spraying for sericea lespedeza. The lespedeza is spot sprayed, but is abundant enough that herbicide impacts are evident on the plant community.  Mike Arduser, of MDC, pointed out that the site looks really nice from a bee habitat standpoint, bolstering the idea that although it had lost some of its plant diversity, it was still an important contributor to the landscape around it.

I appreciated the discussion because it forced me to reflect upon our Platte River Prairies, and areas that I wish looked better than they did.  In both my prairies and at Prairie Fork, it’s really the big picture that’s important.  Within the mosaic of natural communities that make up any sizeable prairie, it’s probably ok to have areas of low diversity vegetation.  At least at the scale of Prairie Fork, it’s really the mosaic that’s important, and variation in plant species composition between individual portions of the landscape is not only acceptable, but preferable.  Coming to terms with the idea that it’s ok to have portions of our prairies/properties that are less diverse than we think they could be is an important part of being a successful land manager.  The alternative probably entails driving ourselves to exhaustion!

.

3. The last site we looked at was a 2004 prairie planting that was very diverse and full of big showy wildflowers.  From an aesthetic standpoint, the planting was a big beautiful success.  I asked the MDC staff how they might judge the success of such a planting according to their objectives.  Clearly, one part of the answer is that a showy prairie is useful in terms of getting people to appreciate prairies – so that fits well into education/outreach objectives.  However, Jeff Demand, the current site manager, had another interesting perspective.  Jeff said that he appreciated the planting because it required very little maintenance.  There were no real invasive species issues to deal with, and nothing else about it that screamed out for attention.  The planting was clearly of value to wildlife, pollinators, and other prairie species, but it was particularly nice to have an area that just needed some period burning or similar management.  Especially when budgets and staffing are tight (and when are they NOT?) a site that is attractive and low maintenance can seem like heaven.

This 1994 seeding at Prairie Fork is an aesthetically-pleasing site.  Most people would be very happy to have this kind of establishment success from a prairie planting.

This 2004 seeding at Prairie Fork is an aesthetically-pleasing site. Most people would be very happy to have this kind of establishment success from a prairie planting.  However, aesthetics is not always the best measure of success.

There are no right or wrong answers when it comes to objectives.  Every site has its own, and they almost always change over time.  The important thing is to know what the objectives are for a particular site, and to be measuring whether or not you’re moving in the right direction.  It’s always nice to hear about other people’s objectives and measures, because it makes us re-examine our own.

I tend to worry more than I should about portions of our site that aren’t as “nice” as I think they should be.  The field trip discussion was a great reminder to sto obsessing about small areas and keep the big picture in mind.  It’s important to deal with areas that might negatively influence the surrounding landscape (e.g., by providing a foothold for invasive species that can spread into nearby areas).  Otherwise, however, variation between portions of a prairie or prairie landscape just adds to the diversity – and resilience – of the ecosystem.  I think that’s a good thing.

I guess I just have to be reminded of that now and then.

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is an ecologist and Eastern Nebraska Program Director for The Nature Conservancy. He supervises the management and restoration of approximately 4,000 acres of land in central and eastern Nebraska - primarily along the central Platte River. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press.
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20 Responses to Report from the 2013 Grassland Restoration Network Workshop – Part 1

  1. Steve says:

    Excellent post Chris.

  2. anastaciast says:

    Isn’t it amazing what ppl can accomplish when working together. I believe this is your most important post to date. I think it should go in NebraskaLand as an article…and into other publications that have the same theme.

  3. Patrick says:

    Interesting thoughts about what to do with border areas. I’m curious…do you think your management objectives would change if these areas bordered native prairies versus reconstructions? I think about areas of brome next to a prairie remnant for example.

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Good question, Patrick. I tend to think we’d see things the same way. Keeping those nearby areas from threatening either a remnant or restored prairie would be an important objective.

  4. bkleiman2013 says:

    Thank you for summing up that good field trip.

  5. I was surprised to read that so much spraying goes on in restoring prairies. It would be nice if there was a mechanical way to take care of the weeds/invasives. I like what you said at the end about having objectives. Even those of us who have small yards could set some.

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Sue – you’re right about objectives. No project or site is too small for objectives.

      Herbicide is an unfortunate necessity for controlling some invasive species. Deciduous trees and many perennial invasive forbs just won’t die by mechanical means, and a lot of effort can be spent for naught on them. Also, working at larger scales can reduce the number of options available because it’s not always possible to hand-pull plants on 100′s of acres, for example. I don’t know any land managers who use herbicides cavalierly – we’d all rather not use them at all, so try to be as judicious as possible. In the examples I gave in this most recent post, broadcast spraying was being talked about in areas where there is essentially no native vegetation. That doesn’t mean the herbicide use would be innocuous, of course. It still takes considerable thought and good selection of chemicals to help ensure the minimum damage to the area sprayed and to prevent run-off or other impacts to nearby areas.

      • Thanks for your reply to my comment. Right after I read your post, I went to another one about someone who is planting large areas with prairie plants, and he, too, is using herbicide. http://improvedecosystems.blogspot.com/2013/07/a-farewell-to-lawn.html#comment-form It sounds like a common thing in large areas like you are dealing with. In the city, where it is more manageable, I feel people are too quick to get that weed killer out. I have a campanula of some kind, and bindweed that I continue to hoe, dig, and pull. I am determined to win the battle at some point. Actually I almost have with the bindweed. Have a great day!

  6. Mike Suiter says:

    Chris, great article! I like your comment about no right or wrong objectives. Obviously my 1 acre prairie objective of “converting brome to something more pleasing” is going to be different than prairie managers working with a lot land. It is looking better each year which is my simple measure of success. I just put new pics on my site if you want to take a look (slowly getting better at macros).

    Since you and other prairie managers harvest your own seeds, do you have any good resources on how to do that? I thought about trying that and spreading them in areas that aren’t as “nice” :)

  7. James McGee says:

    Hi Chris, I’m glad you had a chance to talk to Bill Kleiman. Mr. Kleinman was the person who told me the more diverse the seed mix used the more diverse the result. You seem to disagree with this assertion. Maybe you and Mr. Kleinman can talk about it and figure out why you both hold opposite opinions. If you do talk with Mr. Kleiman please share any discussion and revelations that occur with the rest of us.
    Thanks,
    James

    • Chris Helzer says:

      James, Bill and I have been good friends for a long time. In this case, as is true most of the time, I actually agree with him and do think that a more diverse seed mixture leads to great diversity in the establishment of the prairie. I’m curious to know what I said/wrote that gave you a different impression.

      • James McGee says:

        Chris, I think I misunderstood what you had previously written. I was thinking about our discussion following your Nov. 28, 2012 post “Dealing With a Pervasive Invasive – Kentucky Bluegrass in Prairies.” You had written the following.

        “2. The increase in diversity we’re seeing in our degraded remnants is certainly not a factor of seeding, except in small areas. The data set I linked to shows some of the major species that are increasing over time. Overseeding is helping, but has so far been constrained to a fairly small proportion of our sites as we continue to refine those methods.”

        Sincerely,
        James

  8. Tim Siegmund says:

    Chris, Great synopsis of the field trip. I enjoyed all of the discussions while we attended. Certainly food for thought for a long time. Hopefully, we Texans can attend more of the GRN’s meetings in the future. Thanks for the post.

  9. What I missed while up in the cool north woods!
    Anyway, a relevant publication: http://ohvec.org/issues/mountaintop_removal/articles/myths_of_restoration.pdf

  10. timupham says:

    Did ecologists from around the world, attend this workshop?

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Just from the U.S. this time. In the past we’ve had a few attendees from the Netherlands and Canada, but it’s been a while.

      • timupham says:

        Invitations should be extended to scientists from Kazakhstan, India, Argentina, Bolivia, Russia. India is drastically losing grasslands, which led to the extinction of the cheetah, and the rarity of the blackbuck and chinkara, and greatly threatens the great Indian bustard. Bolivia just recently purchased an abandoned farm to extend the habitat of the maned wolf at the Barba Azul Nature Reserve. Kazakhstan and Russia have brought back the saiga antelope from greatly reduced numbers, and Bactrian camels have been reintroduced back into Kazakhstan.

  11. Pingback: Why There Is No Cookbook for Restoring and Managing Prairies | The Prairie Ecologist

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