Hubbard Fellowship Blog- Building a Volunteer Program

This post was written by Evan Barrientos, one of our Hubbard Fellows.  Evan is a talented writer and photographer and I encourage you to check out his personal blog. If you would like to see more of his photographs, you can follow him on Facebook.

When I started my Fellowship I had strong interests in outreach and stewardship. I was hoping the Fellowship would help me choose which to focus on, but instead it’s shown me a way to combine the two: volunteer stewardship programs.

Although I greatly enjoy the physical work of stewardship and recognize that conservation can’t happen without it, I sometimes feel that it’s a losing battle. The fact is, the conservation movement just doesn’t have the resources to rigorously manage entire landscapes. Here on the Platte River Prairies, there are always more invasives than we can spray, more seeds than we can collect, more equipment repairs than we can fix, etc. This is why outreach matters to me. I think that in order for conservation to be successful we need to inspire more people to support it. Over the course of my Fellowship, I’ve come to believe that volunteer stewardship programs can make significant gains on both of these fronts.

Volunteers help collect seed from one of our larger Platte River Prairies.

Last June at the start of my Fellowship, I heard that there was a volunteer workday coming up. During high school I enjoyed volunteering at my local nature center, so I thought I would check it out. Although only three volunteers attended, at the end of the morning I sensed a hint of accomplishment and camaraderie. I decided I would stay involved with the workdays.

Only three more workdays had been scheduled for the year. Through a mix of chance and initiative, I wound up leading them. This was new territory for me and I would become very nervous for the entire week before each one, but the feeling of accomplishment afterwards was incredible. Not only did we accomplish large tasks in short amounts of time, but I sensed that people were learning a lot and building meaningful connections to our prairies. Little by little, new volunteers started showing up, people consistently drove from 1.5, 2.5, and 3 hours away, and my pre-workday nerves started to lessen.

I decided to extend the workdays into the winter. Although this meant figuring out a new volunteer activity (invasive tree removal), I felt that there was too much good momentum to quit. At this point I had started interviewing other volunteer coordinators for advice, and a repeated recommendation was to build a sense of community through social events.  Copying a great tradition from my high school nature center, I started hosting lunches after the workdays. People really seemed to enjoy these and the tree removal, and our average attendance grew to about nine. (In a later post I’ll summarize my findings from nine interviews and 160 responses to a survey I conducted).

With momentum still rising, in February I decided to attempt a larger event. Our ongoing prairie restoration was due to be seeded and I thought it would be a fantastic opportunity for volunteers to create something beautiful, important, and permanent. Some volunteers could even have the gratification of knowing that they had picked the seeds during the previous summer. I sent press releases to four newspapers, announced the event to the Nebraska Master Naturalist program, invited members of a local church, recruited TNC staff to attend, and advertised a large potluck. Despite freezing temperature and 25mph winds, 30 volunteers (probably the largest volunteer event we’ve ever had) came to help! We made tremendous progress very quickly, and then enjoyed a delicious potluck and Q&A with our staff. The event was covered by a local newspaper, picked up by the Omaha World Herald, and even mentioned in USA Today!

New people of all ages continue to attend the workdays, as well as several who have been coming regularly since the summer. Among our most dedicated volunteers are a college student, a father/son team, and a grandfather. Since June, 48 volunteers have contributed 270 hours of stewardship. This time is so valuable because it is spent on essential tasks that wouldn’t receive any attention otherwise. Tree removal is a great example. If we let trees go wild on our prairies, very soon we won’t be able to hay, graze, or burn the prairies the way we need to to meet our management objectives. Yet in my 11 months here I’d estimate that staff have spent less than ten hours treating young trees, simply because we’re busy with more specialized tasks like prescribed fire. Fortunately, volunteers have contributed 105 collective hours to remove trees from 70 acres of heavily-infested prairie since November.

But workdays are even more valuable, in my opinion, because they provide a way for people to make personal connections to our organization, Nebraska’s prairies, and global conservation issues. By attending workdays, volunteers learn about prairie ecology, management, threats, and more. By spending time in our prairies and working towards a goal, they develop a personal attachment to our properties and to prairies in general. And who knows, maybe the workdays will even inspire some to dedicate their careers or savings to conservation. That’s what I love most about leading workdays: you never know when you’ll change someone’s life forever. Sound far-fetched? Well, that’s how I got here.


The last aspect of building a volunteer program is sustaining it. The volunteers have asked me many times, “What will happen to the workdays after you leave?” I think about that a lot. My goal from the start was to foster a group of volunteers with enough dedication and experience to be fairly self-sufficient after my Fellowship ends. So far, I’ve trained two dedicated volunteers to lead workdays. I’m hopeful they’ll continue to engage Nebraskans in the meaningful work going on here after I’m gone. Based on the enthusiasm I’ve seen so far, I’m optimistic that they will.

Steve (blue sweatshirt) has attended 7 of the last 11 workdays, and has stepped up to become a Workday Leader! He’ll be leading his first workday this Saturday!

If you’d like to get involved, our next workday is this Saturday, April 23, at 9:00am at the Platte River Prairies. Email to sign up!


Every Little Bit Helps

I’m getting excited about this upcoming field season.  For the first time in several years, we’re going to be attempting to harvest seed from as many prairie plant species as we can.  Between about 1997 and 2005, we spent much of each field season hand-picking seeds from a broad diversity of species – often ending up with over 200 species by the end of the season.  It was exciting and fulfilling, and we were often able to create up to a couple hundred acres of new prairie habitat each year.  Since that time, we’ve focused less on converting cropland to high-diversity prairie (we ran out of cropland!) and more on harvesting large amounts of fewer species to overseed degraded prairies.  I’m not sure we’ll be able to harvest as many as 200 species this summer – we’re pulled in many more directions now than we were in our “glory years” of seed harvesting – but making the attempt will be fun.

A clonal patch of bracted spiderwort (Tradescantia bracteata) in a 2002 prairie planting.
A clonal patch of bracted spiderwort (Tradescantia bracteata) in a 2002 prairie planting.  It isn’t hard to find these patches (when they’re blooming) despite the fact that we had only about 1 cup of seed spread over about 70 acres.

During those glory years, we worked hard to build the most diverse seed mixture possible.  We used to joke about how many seeds we had to get from a plant species before we could add it to that year’s harvest list.  It kind of felt like cheating when we’d only find a handful or two of seeds from a species but would add it to the list anyway.  However, we justified listing those species because of conversations with people who had much more experience than we did (especially Bill Whitney with Prairie Plains Resource Institute) who claimed that even a few seeds would usually be enough to establish a species in a new prairie.  Besides, we figured if the species was appropriate to the site, tiny populations would spread out over time.

Now that I’ve had up to 17 years to watch the establishment of plantings I personally harvested seed for, I can testify that Bill and others were right.  Sometimes, just a few seeds really are enough.  That knowledge is awfully good for morale when we’re on our hands and knees searching for violet or pale poppy mallow (Callirhoe alcoides) plants to harvest from.  Those are just two or many examples of plants that are short, have widely scattered populations in our prairies, and are difficult to find at seed harvest time because the surrounding vegetation has grown tall enough to obscure them from sight.   To make things worse, neither of those species produces many seeds per plant, so even when you find a plant, you might only get 20-50 seeds out of it.  Knowing that those 20-50 seeds are worth finding makes crawling on hands and knees seem much less tedious.  Ok, a LITTLE less tedious.

Violets are difficult to find after they are done blooming.  Even when you find them,  each plant produces few seeds (and you have to get them before the pods pop open and toss the seeds away...)
Violets are difficult to find after they are done blooming. Even when you find them, each plant produces few seeds (and you have to get them before the pods pop open and toss the seeds away…)

Last week, I finally found time to finish data entry from my 2014 plant community monitoring of some of our restored prairies.  Looking through the long-term data trends, it was gratifying to see hard evidence that small amounts of seed really do turn into robust plant populations.  Here are a few examples.  (Warning: this next portion of the post includes actual graphs of actual data.  If you are turned off by graphs or data, please skip to the last paragraph now.)

Data from a mesic restored prairie with sandy/loam soil and scattered sand ridges.
Data from an upland sandhills restored prairie.

In the above two graphs, similar trends can be seen for populations of stiff sunflower (Helianthus pauciflorus) and Missouri goldenrod (Solidago missouriensis).  These data were collected from approximately 100 1×1 m plots across each site, and the graphs show the % of plots within which each species was present.  The top site (mesic) was sampled annually and the bottom (sandhills) was sampled every other year.

It might look as if Missouri goldenrod is a rare plant in these prairies, but remember that in order to show up in more than a couple 1×1 m plots, it has to be fairly abundant.  Stiff sunflower, on the other hand really is ubiquitous.  Interestingly, only about 3 gallons of fluffy/stemmy Missouri goldenrod seed was in the mix for the  70 acre mesic site and 10 gallons for the 110 acre sandhill site.  About 5 gallons of sunflower seed (still in hulls, with some stems included) was planted in the sandhills and 3 gallons in the mesic site.  Both are fairly respectable amounts of seed given that they were hand harvested, but they were spread pretty thinly across 180 acres.



The second two graphs (above) show two perennial species, a grass named Scribner’s panicum (Panicum oligosanthes) and the short-beaked sedge (Carex brevior), as well as the annual grass six-weeks fescue (Vulpia octoflora).  The two perennials seem to be on a slow steady climb in abundance across both sites, which is excellent.  Meanwhile, the annual appears to be doing what annual plants should do, which is to flourish during periods when competition from surrounding plants is temporarily suppressed.  We had harvested very little seed for all three of these species that year, so it’s gratifying to see that they are becoming part of the established plant community.  Specifically, we had:

– only 7 cups (!) of seed for the short-beaked sedge across 180 acres (both sites combined).

– about 2 gallons of stemmy seed for Scribner’s panicum.

– 3 1/2 cups of six-weeks fescue (tiny seeds) for the sandhills and 1 cup for the mesic site.

I knew we hadn’t collected much seed for these species, but I was still surprised by how little we’d had when I went back to check the records.  There are many other examples I could share of species that established very nicely (and/or are increasing over time) despite small amounts of seed in the planting mixture.  Some of those species established fairly quickly, but most are slowly increasing in abundance, either through clonal (rhizomatous) growth or because each new generation of plants puts out more seed to spawn the next generation.

Fourpoint evening primrose (Oenothera rhombipetala) established well in the sandhills restoration despite only 2 cups of seed planted.  The biennial species is episodic in its abundance, but
Fourpoint evening primrose (Oenothera rhombipetala) established well in our sandhills restoration despite less than 2 cups of seed planted on 110 acres. The biennial species is episodic in its abundance – just as it should be.

The seed we harvest this coming season will be planted on about 50 acres – far fewer than the 150-200 acres we planted each year before we ran out of cropland to restore.  However, regardless of planting size, the major challenge is still to find and harvest seed from a diverse mixture of plant species.  We’ll be digging out our old lists of species, harvest times, and notes about where the best plant populations can be found.  Then we’ll strap buckets to our waists and start picking seeds.  It should be a fun year!

…and on those days when we’re laboriously searching for tiny plants hidden beneath tall grass, we’ll remember that with seed harvesting, every little bit helps!

Click here for more information on prairie restoration in Nebraska.



Our New Mechanical Seed Harvester

Seed harvest is a big part of our work here at the Platte River Prairies.  We don’t do as much complete restoration (converting cropland to high-diversity prairie) as we used to because we’ve just about run out of land to restore.  Instead we’ve shifted most of our seed work toward overseeding degraded remnant prairies that are missing many prominent wildflower species.  As a result, instead of harvesting from 230 plant species a year, we’re mainly focusing on getting as much seed as possible from about 30 to 40 species.

Nelson Winkel harvests Maximilian sunflower seeds by hand.
Nelson Winkel harvests Maximilian sunflower seeds by hand.

Most of our seed harvest is by hand, and when needed, we’ve been able to get adequate seed for up to 200 acres of cropland conversion work per year that way.  We’ve also used mechanical means to supplement our hand harvesting, including a couple different combines we’ve owned and pull-behind seed strippers we’ve borrowed from partners.  The mechanical harvesters have been helpful for getting big patches of seed from some grasses, sedges, and a few forbs.  However, the combines we’ve used aren’t very flexible about where they can go (hills and wet areas are tough) and the seed strippers’ brushes haven’t been aggressive enough to remove seed heads of some of the species we really wanted big quantities of – especially for our overseeding work.  However, a recent grant from the Nebraska Environmental Trust, via the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, made it possible for us to purchase a new mechanical seed harvester.

Here, Nelson is harvesting grass seed with a mechanical seed stripper borrowed from Prairie Plains Resource Institute.
Here, Nelson is harvesting grass seed with a mechanical seed stripper borrowed from Prairie Plains Resource Institute.

After exploring a number of options, we decided to buy a seed stripper from Ned Groelz at Graywind Industries, Inc.  Our friends at Prairie Plains Resource Institute bought a pull-behind stripper built by Ned many years ago, and we liked a lot of its features – especially the ability to remotely control the harvester’s brush on the fly (turning it off and on and adjusting its height while driving through the prairie).  When we ordered our machine, we told Ned we were hoping to harvest large amounts of seed from plants with tough-to-remove seedheads and we weren’t sure a brush would be able to handle those.  He said he’d play with some ideas and see what he could do about that.

When Ned delivered the machine to us, he had a big grin on his face – a sure sign that he’d come up with something for our tough-to-harvest seed problem.  His solution was to replace the harvester’s brush with a more aggressive tool that included “stripping elements” – metal fingers, essentially –  made by the Shelbourne Reynolds company.  (Shelbourne Reynolds sells an attachment for combines that strips, rather than cuts, the grain from crops such as wheat and rice.)  Ned adapted their design for use in his pull-behind seed stripper and he was dying to know whether it would actually work.  Just to be safe, he designed the machine so that we could easily remove his experimental portion and replace it with a tried-and-true brush if we wanted to.

A close-up of the Shelbourne stripper elements included in Ned's new harvester design.
A close-up of the Shelbourne stripper elements included in Ned’s new harvester design.

Ned was so interested in testing his new design, he came out a couple weeks ago to watch it in action.  Without going into a lot of details, let me just say – it works great!  So far, we’ve tested it on wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), stiff sunflower (Helianthus pauciflorus), and Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoiensis), as well as a few others.

Nelson and Ned watch the new stripper as it harvests seed from Illinois bundleflower.  The machine is offset from the UTV so the UTV doesn’t smash the vegetation down before it is harvested.
The stripper removes some stems and leaves, as well as seed pods, but leaves most of the plant behind.
The stripper removes some stems and leaves, as well as seed pods, but leaves most of each plant behind.
Ned and Nelson evaluate the performance of the new machine and talk about ideas for further improvements.
Ned and Nelson evaluate the performance of the new machine and talk about ideas for further improvements.

Hand-harvesting will still be an important component of our prairie restoration work. Many plant species are scattered here and there across a prairie and hand-harvesting is the only feasible way to obtain their seeds.  However, other plants occur in big patches, and this new machine is going to let us quickly harvest large quantities of seed from those, which will be a tremendous boon to our overseeding efforts.  We’ll need to do a little more seed processing (using hammermills and screens to separate seeds from the pods, stems, and leaves picked up by the stripper) than with hand-harvested seed, but that should go pretty quickly.

One of my favorite aspects of prairie restoration is the innovation displayed by people trying to come up with new effective ways to harvest seeds.  This new mechanical stripper is one more addition to a long list of those innovations.  Keep ’em coming, folks!

For more information and pricing of Ned’s mechanical seed harvesters, contact him at:

Ned Groelz – Graywind Enterprises, Inc.

2927 W 700 S
Syracuse, UT 84075-9764
Mobile: 801-803-0412

I want to be perfectly clear -this post was not sponsored by Graywind Enterprises, and we paid full price for the seed stripper and its components.   All the opinions about this equipment and how it worked are just my opinions.  My intent is to let others know of the existence of this machine in case it can help move prairie restoration and conservation work forward.


Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Seed Harvest Musings

A guest post by Anne Stine, one of our Hubbard Fellows:

I had a pretty good foundation in forest ecology leaving graduate school, but I’ve really developed my forb and grass ID skills since starting work here in Wood River.  Prairie ecology has grown on me.  I was trying to explain it to a forest-loving friend: once you know the local plants, (that is, you see their uniqueness and their ecological and historical roles), you get a better feel for a place.

One of my favorite stewardship tasks is harvesting native seeds.  The best assignments are for hard to find plants that require some knowledge of their life history to locate.  I really enjoy the scavenger hunt and foraging aspects of searching for less widely distributed species.  I also had one of my major botanical victories seed harvesting on the prairie.

Prairie seeds drying in our seed barn.  Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.  Photo by Eliza Perry, Hubbard Fellow.
Prairie seeds drying in our seed barn. Platte River Prairies, Nebraska. Photo by Eliza Perry, Hubbard Fellow.

I was driving around, looking for Canada milkvetch (Astragalus canadensis), when I spotted a familiar stalk sticking up in the pasture.  I remembered it as a plant that had ridden shotgun in the truck with my field supervisor for a few weeks- clearly someone had harvested it.  I just didn’t know what it was.  Its flowers were now gone, only the long brown stalks and seed heads remained.  The leaves looked like a cross between a strawberry and a prairie rose (Rosa arkansana).  I collected the seeds and took the stalks home to identify. I was excited to discover that the plant in question, tall cinquefoil (Potentilla arguta), is indeed in the rose family!  Ecologists find their thrills where they may…

As a natural history geek, I can’t help but delight in picking up random facts about prairie plants.  For example, rocky mountain bee plant (Cleome serrulata) is a glorious nectar source for pollinators in mid-summer.  Doves eat the seeds in the fall.  Its leaves and seeds were also eaten by some Native Americans, “in spite of its strong smell” (“Grassland plants of South Dakota and the Northern Great Plains”, Johnson & Larson 1999). It takes all kinds, the authors seem to say.  I didn’t find the odor especially displeasing, but evidently even botanists have personal opinions.

Rocky mountain bee plant.  Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.
Rocky mountain bee plant. Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Foxglove penstemon (Penstemon digitalis) is one plant whose smell I do find distasteful, and its fragrance garnered no mention. This wildflower is not widespread, but neither is it difficult to find.  You smell it before you see it.  Interestingly, it’s the seed heads and red stalks that stink, not the flower.  I left a bucket in the cab of the truck while I harvested other things, and when I came back the cab was filled with flies.  They followed the bucket to the truck bed when I moved it.

Most of the seeds we collect this year will be used in over-seeding projects, intended to increase the diversity of prairies we manage.  Over-seeding is one strategy we can use to boost a site’s forb population without tearing up the prairie and starting over.  Building a native seed bank of local ecotypes is a useful technique to increase your chances of success in prairie restoration.  It’s not bad work either, if you can get it.

The Right Metaphor for Prairie Restoration

Prairie restoration can be a powerful tool for grassland conservation, but we’re not taking advantage of its full potential.  Too often, we think and talk about prairie restoration (aka prairie reconstruction) in the wrong way.  Instead of trying to restore an ecosystem, we try to reproduce history.

Nelson Winkel, land manager for The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, harvests grass seed using a pull-behind seed stripper.

I was in Washington D.C. a couple weeks ago and visited Ford’s theater, where President Lincoln was assassinated in 1865.  After the death of the president, the building went through drastic changes, including being completely gutted after a partial collapse of the interior.  By the time the decision was made to restore the building for use as a historic site, the National Park Service basically had to start from scratch.  Regardless, through painstaking research and a lot of hard work, the theater was rebuilt to closely resemble Ford’s theater of 1865.

The rebuilding of Ford’s theater is a decent metaphor for much of the early prairie restoration (or reconstruction) work dating back to the 1930’s in North America – as well for some of the restoration work that continues today.   In the case of prairie restoration, someone identifies a tract of land that used to be prairie but has been converted into something completely different (usually cropland), and tries their best to restore what was there before it was converted.  Just as in the restoration of Ford’s theater, the prairie restoration process requires lot of research and hard work to identify, find, and reassemble what had been there before.

Unfortunately, the Ford’s theater approach has turned out to be a poor fit for prairie restoration.  Prairies aren’t buildings that have specific architectural plans and well-defined pieces that can be collected and assembled to create a pre-defined end product.  Prairies are dynamic ecosystems that are constantly changing and evolving, and their components include organisms that interact with each other in complex ways.  Trying to recreate a prairie that looks and functions just as it used to – especially on a small isolated tract of land – is nearly impossible.

Reseeded prairie at The Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands Restoration Project in Indiana. If the plant community today looks different than it did before it was farmed, is that really a failure of the restoration project?

That doesn’t mean small scale prairie restoration is a bad idea.  I think reestablishing vegetation that is similar to what was at a site many years ago can have tremendous historic and educational value, and can also provide important habitat for many grassland species.  Where this kind of prairie restoration falls flat is when we expect too much from it.  It’s really easy to find glaring differences between the restored prairie and what we know or think used to be there – soil characteristics are different, insect and wildlife species are missing, plant species are too common or too rare, etc.  These “failures” have led some people in conservation and academia to become disillusioned with the whole concept of prairie restoration.

In reality, prairie restoration has proven to be very successful, and is a tremendous tool for grassland conservation.  We just need to find and apply a better metaphor.

A Better Metaphor for Ecological Restoration

Unlike efforts to restore old buildings, prairie restoration projects should not be aimed at recreating something exactly as it existed long ago.  Instead, effective prairie restoration should be like rebuilding a city after large portions of it are destroyed in a major disaster.  When reconstructing a metropolitan area, replicating individual structures is much less important than restoring the processes the inhabitants of the city rely on.  The people living and working in a city depend upon the restoration of power, transportation, communication, and other similar functions.  Those people don’t care whether roads, power lines, or communication towers are put back exactly as they were before – they just want to be able to get the supplies and information they need, and to travel around so they can to do their jobs and survive.  Restoration success is not measured by how much the rebuilt areas resemble the preexisting areas, but by whether or not the city and its citizens can survive and thrive again.

Similarly, restoration of fragmented prairie landscapes should not be an attempt to recreate history.  It should be an attempt to rebuild the viability of the species – and, more importantly, the processes – that make the prairie ecosystem function and thrive.  Success shouldn’t be measured at the scale of individual restoration projects, but at the scale of the resultant complex of remnant and restored prairies.  Are habitat patches sufficiently large that area-sensitive birds can nest successfully?  Are insects and animals able to travel through that prairie complex to forage, mate, and disperse?  Are ecological processes like seed dispersal and pollination occurring between the various patches of habitat?  When a species’ population is wiped out in one part of the prairie because of a fire, disease, or other factor, is it able to recolonize from nearby areas?

Pollination is an example of an important process that drives prairie function. Increasing the size and/or connectivity of prairies by restoring areas around and between prairie fragments can enhance the viability of pollination and other processes.

At first glance, choosing the appropriate metaphor for prairie restoration may seem insignificant compared to other challenges we face in grassland conservation.  However, if we’re going to successfully restore the viability of fragmented prairies, we can’t afford to waste time and effort worrying about whether or not we’ve matched pre-European settlement condition, or any other historical benchmark.  Instead, we need to focus on patching the essential systems back together.

After all, we’re not building for the past, we’re building for the future.


Read more on this subject…

– An earlier blog post about using prairie restoration as a landscape scale conservation tool.

– A prairie restoration project case study, with ideas about how to measure its success.

– Some recent early attempts we’ve made to measure restoration success by looking at the responses of bees and ants.

– A post about the importance and definition of ecological resilience in prairies.

Photo of the Week – October 4, 2012

This is the time of year when I get the most satisfaction from harvesting prairie seeds.  Early in the year, seed harvest consists largely of hunting around for little plants hidden here and there in the prairie, and bending low to pluck their seeds.  It’s an important time, but it often feels like a lot of work for not much seed.  In the fall, however, we’re grabbing big handfuls of seed heads from tall plants, and our buckets fill quickly.

One corner of our seed storage barn, showing drying seeds in the foreground and cleaned and bagged seeds on the shelf behind.

The other day, I stepped back to admire the bounty in our seed storage area and thought – not for the first time – how attractive piles of drying seeds can be.  The textures, shapes, and colors all jumbled up together make interesting patterns that beg to be the subjects of still life photographs.

Here are some photos of our seed piles, taken earlier this week.  Because I know some of you will enjoy it, I left the species names off so you can try to guess their identities.  The correct answers will be at the bottom of this post – good luck!
















Did you guess them all?  Knowing that they’ve all been harvested within the last couple weeks should help.  (This is probably more difficult for those of you living on other continents… sorry about that!)


#1 – Maximilian sunflower (Helianthus maximiliani)

#2 – Blue lobelia, aka great lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica)

#3 – Lanceleaf gayfeather (Liatris lancifolia)

#4 – Prairie wild rose (Rosa arkansana)

#5 – Canada milkvetch (Astragalus canadensis)

#6 – Showy tick trefoil, aka Canada tick clover (Desmodium canadense)

#7 – Common evening primrose (Oenothera villosa)

#8 – Pitcher sage (Salvia azurea)

Innovations and Inventions in Prairie Restoration

One of the great things about people who work on restoring (reconstructing) prairies is that they tend to be good at making things up as they go.  Some say prairie restoration is more art than science.  I actually think there’s plenty of science in restoration, but there’s no denying there’s a lot of art as well.  My favorite examples of restoration art are the fantastic machines and techniques people have come up with to harvest, clean, and plant prairie seeds. 

Prairie seed comes in all kinds of sizes and shapes.  That variety makes seeds fascinating to look at and study, but can create all kinds of issues for people trying to get those seeds from plant to the ground in order to make new prairies.  We’ve certainly had some humbling experiences here – including the comedy of errors that was our failed attempt to modify an old John Deere combine so that its augers would move fluffy prairie grass seed from the head to the hopper.  (We eventually sold the remains of the combine for scrap.)

Although our John Deer combine experience didn't work out so well, we've had better luck with our mobile grass seed dryer. This plywood box has a big electric fan hooked up to a 12" perforated pipe that runs along the bottom of the box. We haul the trailer out to the combine and load freshly-harvested seed into it. Then we back it into the shop and plug it in. The seed usually dries overnight. One side of the box then unbolts and makes it easy to unload. This was a team effort, designed by our staff and a local farmer - then built by a boy scout for his Eagle project.

Failures can be educational, but successes are even better.  I’ve been lucky to have some smart people to help me come up with ways to make our restoration work much more efficient and effective.  I’ve also had the opportunity to visit many other restoration sites around the U.S. and have been amazed at the variety of innovative and individual ways others have solved the challenges we all face. 

I learned the trick of burning the silks off of milkweed seeds from friends in Indiana. I've heard it might reduce germination - and we're testing that this year in the greenhouse - but I'm hoping if we spread them thinly enough before burning that it'll work. I hope so - it's fun! (Keep your face away from the heat)

I’d like to celebrate the innovative aspect of prairie restoration by highlighting some of the best tools and techniques that have been developed, but I need your help.  Over the next several weeks or so, I hope to gather up photos and descriptions of some of the unique, beautiful, and intricate ways people have addressed prairie restoration challenges.  Then I’ll put together a post (or maybe several) that showcases the best of what I find.  Hopefully, the result will be both useful and entertaining.

Please send me your favorite examples of tools, machines, and techniques that you’ve invented or modified in order to more effectively harvest, clean, or plant prairie seeds.  Failures and successes are both welcome – as long as they’re interesting.  Email 1-2 photos of each example, along with a paragraph or two of description to  Please keep photo file sizes under 2MB.  No guarantees, but I’ll try to use as many of your photos and descriptions as I can.

Volunteer Opportunities – Platte River Prairies, Nebraska

The following is an unpaid advertisement by The Prairie Ecologist…

Need to build experience for a career in conservation?  Looking for a summer get-away that allows you to give back to the world?  Want to increase your knowledge of prairie ecology or natural history?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, consider volunteering with The Nature Conservancy at the Platte River Prairies in Nebraska!  We are looking for a few dedicated people who are willing to give a month or more of their time between May and October, 2012.  You can assist us with seed harvesting, native plant nursery work, invasive species control, fence repair and maintenance, research data collection, and inventory/monitoring of plant and animal populations.  In most cases, we can provide housing during your stay, so your primary expenses would be limited to travel to our prairies and food while you’re here.

Join our team and get experience with seed harvest and many other conservation activities.

We can tailor your experience to fit your individual needs and preferences.  If you’re a student looking for practical job experience, we will make sure you get hands on practice with a wide variety of tools and techniques and can network with our partner organizations.  If you’re more interested in some components of our work than others, we’ll do what we can to accomodate that.  We can also help set up individual research or other projects if you want something more in-depth or need something like that for college credit.

Anyone interested in volunteering with us can contact Mardell Jasnowski at our office (402-694-4191) or by email ( for more information.  We will ask for a resume and references, and will sort through applicants to find a slate of volunteers who match up well with our needs and capacity to provide a good experience for both parties.  There is no deadline for applications – we will begin evaluating them as they come in.

Lessons from the Grassland Restoration Network

I’ve been involved with high-diversity prairie restoration (reconstruction) since I joined The Nature Conservancy in 1997, learning the basics from Bill Whitney at Prairie Plains Resource Institute.   We’ve now planted over 1,500 acres of Platte River cropfields to prairie vegetation, using seed mixes of between 150 and 230 species.  Those restorations are being used to enlarge and reconnect existing remnant grasslands along the Platte River.

About 10 years ago, I started reaching out to other sites doing similar work.  Gus Nyberg, then at the Kankakee Sands Restoration in Indiana, and I set up a reciprocal visit between our projects, during which I took some of my staff (and Bill Whitney) to Indiana and the Kankakee staff came to Nebraska.  That experience was really valuable for all of us, and convinced us that we needed to do it more often – and to include as many others as possible.  Thus began the Grassland Restoration Network.

The Grassland Restoration Network (GRN) is a loose affiliation of projects and project staff engaged in the restoration of diverse native grassland communities.  The Network was formed in 2003 by The Nature Conservancy and a wide variety of other conservation organizations, government agencies, and private landowners.  There are three major objectives of the GRN:

  1. Facilitate communication and cross-site learning among large-scale grassland restoration sites.
  2. Identify and close critical knowledge gaps regarding grassland restoration and measures of restoration success.
  3. Foster a “grassland restoration culture” that increases the quantity and quality of grassland restoration.
Grassland Restoration Network workshop participants discuss restoration strategy in a restored Nebraska prairie in 2009.

The Network sponsors annual workshops that are hosted by various restoration projects around the country.  In addition to tours, workshops include presentations and discussions on topics including seed harvest/planting, invasive species control, long-term management, and research and evaluation strategies.  Those workshops have been attended largely by people working in the central United States, but have also included participants from the Pacific Northwest, long-leaf pine ecosystem in the southeast, and even other countries, including Canada and The Netherlands.

GRN workshops differ from other conferences in that the Network focuses on the use of high-diversity restoration as a tool for increasing the ecological viability of prairie ecosystems.  For example, we try to enlarge or reconnect small and/or isolated prairies through the conversion of adjacent cropland to high-diversity grassland communities.  In other words, we are trying to defragment the prairie landscape to increase the effective population sizes of prairie species (plants, insects, vertebrates) and benefit the whole ecosystem.  Success in those cases is measured not only by the establishment of plant species in seedings, but also by whether or not those seedings have increased the viability (long-term sustainability of ecological function) of the remnant prairie(s).

Bringing together people working toward this particular objective has had several benefits.  It has increased communication between sites to the point that we know what each other are doing and are learning from their experiences.  We have also identified common challenges and research questions, and have started several joint research projects to try to address those.  Finally, we have been able to take advantage of the size and experience of the group by collecting a number of “lessons learned” regarding the logistics and mechanics of doing prairie restoration.

Most large-scale prairie restoration sites have found that broadcasting seed (rather than drilling) is the most efficient and effective planting technique.

Several of us who have helped facilitate the Network have summarized many of those lessons in a manuscript that will be published in the upcoming Proceedings of the 22nd North American Prairie Conference.  The organizer of that Conference, the Tallgrass Prairie Center at the University of Northern Iowa, has graciously given me permission to post a PDF of that manuscript here, even though the Proceedings have not yet been published.  (click here to download – GRNLessons2010)

The manuscript covers a wide variety of subjects, including seed harvest and cleaning, planting, invasive species control, and overall project planning.  It also includes a selection of the most pressing research questions facing prairie restoration, as identified by Network participants.  If you’re interested or involved in prairie restoration work, I hope you’ll find the manuscript helpful.

Here is a selection of some of the broader lessons learned, excerpted from our manuscript:

1. Match your methods to your objectives.  The biggest key here is to define specific objectives.  Why are you doing the restoration project?  If your primary objective is to create grassland bird habitat, plant species diversity may not be all that critical, but the particular plant species you select may be.  If, on the other hand, you’re trying to enlarge a small remnant prairie so that all of the plants, insects, and animals in that prairie can have larger population sizes, the species diversity and composition of your seed mix becomes much more important.  (It’s also important to be sure you’re evaluating your success based on those same objectives.  If you’re interested in enlarging a prairie, be sure to measure the response from insects and other organisms – not just plants.)

2. Start slow, and increase the scale of restoration over time.  Many restoration projects, especially those trying to restore hundreds or thousands of acres, feel like they need to start restoring large portions of the total right away.  In almost every case where this has been done, the project manager has regretted it later.  Because every site is different, it’s important to start by spending a few years doing small scale seedings in order to build up a database of seed harvest sites, test the effectiveness of techniques, and gauge the level of invasive species suppression that is needed.  Be sure to experiment with a variety of strategies (seeding method, seeding rates, site preparation, etc.) during those first years so that you can learn as much as possible.  Once you feel like you’ve got a handle on effective strategies, you can start ramping up the scale of the effort exponentially.  This approach helps avoid initial large seedings that fail to produce the anticipated results, and that become management headaches down the road.

3. Restore a site over multiple years, rather than all at once.  This is related to number two, but applies to any site, regardless of scale.  Anyone who has spent many years restoring prairies knows that every seeding is unique.  The relative establishment of plant species, the response of weedy species, and many other factors vary year to year – often for reasons we can’t yet define.  Make that variability a positive thing.  If you have 100 acres to plant, seeding 20 acres a year for five years can produce five unique prairie communities that complement each other and increase overall heterogeneity and diversity of habitat and species composition, rather than one large seeding that looks pretty much the same across the whole site.  Another approach is to “checkerboard” a seeding; break each year’s seeding effort into several locations, scattered across the larger site, and fill in more blanks every year.

4. If you want plant diversity, maximize that diversity in your initial seedings – don’t plant a low diversity mixture with the idea of coming back later to add diversity.  It is much more difficult to enhance the diversity of an established prairie restoration than it is to establish that diversity during the initial seeding process.  Attempts to do so tend to have inconsistent results at best.

Efficient seed harvesting is an important part of prairie restoration when trying to maximize both acres and species diversity.

5. Adapt your technique as you go.  Even if you start small and figure out some apparently effective methods before attempting larger seedings, it’s still important to continue experimenting.  Including a couple small experimental plots (1 acre or so in size) within each year’s restoration work, in which seeding rate or other treatments are varied, can provide tremendous information that can help refine your techniques over time.  Collecting data from those plots can be as simple as visual observation of differences or more intensive, but without those experiments, you’ll never know whether or not you could be doing better restoration work.

6. Develop a plan, and capacity, for dealing with invasive species before you start.  Invasive species are expensive to fight, but the success of that fight is the difference between restoration success and failure.  In fact, when a restoration effort is designed to benefit an adjacent remnant prairie, a seeding full of invasive species can actually put the remnant at greater risk than before.  There are two factors that should drive the number of acres you plant each year: the amount of seed you can harvest to obtain the desired species composition in the seedings, and the number of acres on which you can deal with invasive species.  This is one of the great advantages of starting small – you can evaluate the threat posed by invasive species on small seedings before jumping into large seedings that could overwhelm your available resources.  It’s better to do high-quality, but small, seedings than mediocre (or worse) large ones.

7. Finally, one of the most interesting facets of prairie restoration is that there are many ways to do it successfully.  It is a field full of innovation and creativity, and it’s wonderful to see varying approaches to common problems.  However, through polling participants, we’ve found that there seems to be one set of restoration techniques that is universally successful, regardless of geographic location or other factors.  Excepting extraordinary circumstances, a dormant season broadcast seeding onto Roundup Ready soybean stubble will always establish a diverse prairie plant community.  This doesn’t mean that the Network is prescribing that specific technique – in fact many of us have had great success with other techniques.  But we think it notable that we could identify at least one combination of techniques that consistently produces successful prairie establishment.

Whether you’re creating prairies for educational, historic, aesthetic, or ecological reasons, it can be a rewarding (if challenging) experience.  Because every site responds uniquely to prairie restoration, much of what works for you will likely be learned through experimentation.  However, there is also much to learn from others who have been doing similar work in other places.  I hope this partial summary of that information will help you.

The 2011 GRN workshop has not yet been planned.  Stay tuned to this blog for updates about the date and location.

Fall Harvest

It’s harvest time!  When our neighbors start filling their combines with corn and soybeans, we know it’s time to harvest grass seed from our prairies too.  This year we don’t have a need for large amounts of seed from tall grasses,  so we’re not  combining our own seed.  Instead, we’ve been able to provide harvest sites to Prairie Plains Resource Institute.   They’re harvesting big bluestem, indiangrass, switchgrass, prairie cordgrass, and other prairie species from our sites to use in restoration work around eastern Nebraska.  In return, they’re giving us a share of the seed – in particular, a big load of  mixed seed from one of our more diverse restored prairies.  We’ll be using that seed to overseed some degraded remnants this winter.


Bill Whitney, of Prairie Plains Resource Institute, harvesting grass from a restored prairie at The Nature Conservancy's Derr Tract. Central Platte River, Nebraska.


While we’re getting our fair share of seed in return for letting Prairie Plains harvest from our prairies, I feel really good about being able to give something back to them for other reasons.  Bill Whitney has been a huge influence on my career (and that of many other ecologists).  He pioneered prairie restoration in Nebraska and I feel honored to have been able to learn his methods directly from him.

In addition, Bill was instrumental in getting The Nature Conservancy started on high-diversity prairie restoration back in the early 1990’s, and our earliest restoration sites were planted by Prairie Plains.  Much of the seed Bill’s been harvesting this week is coming from sites that he initially harvested seed for and planted 12-15 years ago.  So, really, we’re just letting him reap what he sowed.

If you’re interested in prairie restoration, you too can learn directly from Bill.  Gerry Steinauer, with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, took the initiative to capture Bill’s methods, along with input from me and others, and put it all into complete and readable guide.  You can download the guide here: