20 Dec 2012: Report

In Midwest, Bringing Back
Native Prairies Yard by Yard

Across the U.S. Midwest, homeowners are restoring their yards and former farmland to the native prairie that existed in pre-settlement days. The benefits can be substantial — maintenance that uses less water and no fertilizer, and an ecosystem that supports wildflowers and wildlife.

by rebecca kessler

David Read is a big guy, six-foot-two, but the grass behind him inches above the crown of his khaki fisherman’s hat. He gestures off toward his house across a swishing, dancing expanse of stems, leaves, and early-autumn wildflowers, and smiles. “We wanted to sit on our back porch and watch grass swaying in the wind,” he says. Which is exactly what it’s doing this September day, finally.

It wasn’t always so. In the 1990s when he and his wife Alisande bought this property, 38 acres in exurban Dexter, Michigan, it was fallow farmland slowly succumbing to invasive shrubs. In 2003, after retiring, they set about restoring 11 acres of it to native prairie.

Read has done most of the work himself, at times putting in 20 hours a week or more lopping and herbiciding weedy brush, as well as seeding, mowing, and burning. He estimates they’ve spent nearly $15,000 on seed, equipment, herbicide, and some outside help. He might be a little nuts, Read concedes, but if so, he has a lot of company throughout the U.S. Midwest and Great Plains.

Prior to settlement by Europeans, prairie blanketed an enormous swath of central North America, from Canada south to Texas, and from Indiana west to Colorado — nearly 600,000 square miles of grassland all told. This complex ecosystem was home to a diverse and teeming web of life,
Some people are re-creating prairie where it never was before — on land that was originally forest or wetlands.
including now-tattered bison populations. Farming and development have reduced much of this iconic American landscape, particularly in the wetter eastern areas. There, tall-grass prairie, a habitat dominated by grasses that can grow eight feet high, now occupies less than 1 percent of its former range, putting it among the world’s most endangered ecosystems, according to the U.S. National Park Service. In the central prairie zone, so called “mixed-grass” ecosystems have suffered similar losses, while in the drier, less populous West, short-grass prairies have fared better.

Government agencies and conservation groups, aided by volunteers, have undertaken numerous restoration projects across U.S. and Canadian prairieland, some of them thousands of acres in scale. In recent years a cadre of private citizens has joined in, restoring prairie to their own properties, from city yards up to 100 acres or more around rural homes and farms. In some cases they’ve re-created prairie where it never was before — on land that was originally forest or wetlands before settlers plowed it for crops.

The hub of this do-it-yourself restoration activity is Iowa, southwestern Wisconsin, northern Illinois, and Minnesota, says Daryl Smith, director of the Tallgrass Prairie Center at the University of Northern Iowa. That’s probably because the region’s native prairie is so precious. Iowa’s, for instance, is down to one tenth of one percent of its original extent.

Federal, state, and local programs offer financial and technical assistance, particularly for larger private projects on agricultural land. Conservation groups also offer some help. And a cottage industry of consultants, contractors, and native-plant nurseries has arisen for landowners who can’t do it all themselves. With so many players involved, no one seems to have a bird’s-eye view of just how much prairie is being restored on private land. By all accounts, however, the trend is growing, even if it may be all but impossible to quantify. “I’ve been in this business since the early ‘70s and there’s definitely been increasing numbers each year of prairie plantings,” Smith says. “We just haven’t kept a record of it.

View gallery
Midwest prairie flowers

Photo courtesy of David Reid
David Read, holding his grandson, on his restored prairie land in Dexter, Michigan.
As David Read wrote in an essay, “Prairie restoration is not for wimps!” It can be labor-intensive and technically challenging. People are educating themselves on the intricacies of grassland ecology, planting genetically modified “Roundup Ready” crops so they can blitz the soil clear of invasive species’ seed before sowing prairie plants, and bringing in heavy equipment to drill, till, spray, and seed. They are setting fire to their land to mimic nature’s way of keeping trees out and replenishing soil nutrients. In some places, they are banding together to swap work on one another’s properties, which one Wisconsin prairie buff likened to the barn raisings of years past.

“It definitely takes a combination of expertise in how to go about doing it and an investment up front either in money or in time,” says Chris Kirkpatrick, executive director of The Prairie Enthusiasts. “It’s a lot of doing things at the right time in the right order.” The 1,200-member group has 11 chapters in Wisconsin, Illinois, and Minnesota, up from five a decade ago. The work diminishes after a few years as the new prairie becomes established, Kirkpatrick says. Compared to lawn, prairie is cheaper in the long run, takes less work, and consumes no fertilizer and less water and fossil fuel for mowing, he says.

Folks who prefer that others do the heavy lifting can hire design, preparation, seeding, and maintenance for an acre of prairie for between $2,200 and $5,000, says Neil Diboll, president of Prairie Nursery in Westfield, Wisconsin. Diboll, an eminent advocate of native-plant gardening, says he has completed a few projects exceeding $100,000.

The payoff is the reappearance of native wildlife in places that for decades could not support it. That is abundantly obvious on the Reads’ property, where the shimmering trill of thousands of insects nearly drowns out
The payoff is the reappearance of native wildlife in places that for decades could not support it.
the tidal roar of traffic from nearby I-94. Read says coyotes, foxes, deer, raccoons, skunks, possums, rabbits, owls, hawks, and numerous other birds are regular visitors, as are decidedly nonnative feral cats. A couple summers ago they had an explosion of enormous dragonflies that would cruise just above the grasses. “You could tell when they got outside the prairie,” he says, “they’d turn around and come back again.”

“We say build it and they will come,” says Mark Sargent, who runs a Michigan Department of Natural Resources program that helps landowners restore prairie and other native habitat to encourage vulnerable grassland and game bird species. That program has helped restore some 40,000 acres in the past decade, according to Sargent, “a lot” of it prairie. Twelve years ago, he and his wife began restoring prairie and wetlands on their 53 acres outside of Charlotte, Michigan, and he says the difference in birdlife is striking. For the first two years, he says he would flush an average of one game bird every three times he went out hunting. Now it’s five every time.

Bigger prairies obviously offer more wildlife habitat, and connected ones allow species to spread over larger territories, preventing gene-pool stagnation, Sargent and other experts say. But even small patches count as pocket refuges for native wildlife that may have few alternatives.

View gallery
Midwest prairie flowers

Photo by Rebecca Kessler
Native plants outside Karen Sharp's house in Ann Arbor shield the porch from the street.
In the Water Hill neighborhood of Ann Arbor, a number of residents have turned their city lots into prairie. Thirteen years ago Karen Sharp bought a house here, with a wild scraggle of vegetation shielding the front porch. The former owner returns occasionally to do carefully controlled burns of the little prairie, squeezed in between all the old wooden houses. “It looks really freaky. Cars will stop,” she says. “It’s black, charred front lawn. And it smells. It smells charred for a week or more. It really puts you off.”

The plants grow back quickly, though, and she says she has wildflowers with little effort and no water at the height of the summer when many of her neighbors’ yards are brown. “I love the privacy. I love the insects and the birds, and I love the flowers. And I love seeing how it changes every year,” she says.

In ecologically-minded places like Ann Arbor, prairies have gained a measure of acceptance, but elsewhere would-be prairie planters have had to battle city nuisance codes, fines, and neighbors that regard their projects as weedy eyesores. There’s also the question of longevity. Most prairies will
In ecologically-minded places like Ann Arbor, prairies have gained a measure of acceptance.
always require some maintenance to keep out trees, brush, and invasive species, which subsequent owners may or may not keep up, experts say.

There have already been casualties, according to Roger Anderson, a plant ecologist and professor emeritus at Illinois State University. He’s seen a few undone in real estate transactions or, in the case of one 25-year-old restoration on school property with over 100 native plant species, by a new school principal who just didn’t get it.

There are larger market forces at play, too. With grain prices skyrocketing because of the demand for ethanol, farmers have been plowing under native grasses they planted just a few years earlier with help from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), according to Smith of the Tallgrass Prairie Center and other experts. CRP staff estimate that 11.6 million acres of land currently enrolled in the program in 14 prairie states have been planted primarily with native grasses. It would be a stretch to call many of these projects full prairie restorations, especially since landowners are only bound to keep enrolled lands out of production for contract periods of 10 or 15 years. Nevertheless, they do add a great deal of wildlife habitat, and the loss of it hurts, Smith says.

Lawn may long be king, but it is surrendering some ground as people increasingly welcome the helter-skelter beauty of prairie around homes and buildings, says Diboll, who remembers locals referring to his nursery as the “weed farm” in the 1980s. “It’s like any social change event,” he says. “It’s a change in attitudes and styles, and those things take time.”

POSTED ON 20 Dec 2012 IN Climate Policy & Politics Water North America North America 


Fascinating story. It'd be great to see fewer lawns and more native grasses. The National Wildlife Federation has a program to promote community habitats. http://www.nwf.org/How-to-Help/Garden-for-Wildlife/Community-Habitats.aspx

I believe NWF is currently helping places of worship, including my own (Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, MD), turn their land into prairie.

Posted by Marc Gunther on 20 Dec 2012

If it’s a question of choosing between a lawn and a native-grass prairie, a case can be made that the prairie is superior habitat. And perhaps that is the choice being made by the private property owners featured in this article.

However, that is not usually the choice being made by the managers of public land who are destroying trees and shrubs — mostly natives — solely because the pre-European landscape was grassland. These grasslands were just as artificial as anything created by post-settlement Europeans because they were sustained by the frequent fires set by Native Americans. Fires prevent natural succession to shrubs, then forests and those who now choose to install grassland must continue to burn their properties to sustain them. These fires pollute the air and endanger residential neighborhoods. Toxic pesticides are used for the same purpose. Here’s how residents of Chicago, Illinois feel about these projects: http://milliontrees.me/2011/03/05/chicago-another-example-of-destructive-restorations/

Although the proponents of these projects claim that wildlife benefits from them, there is no scientific evidence that supports that anecdotal observation. Here‘s a critique of Doug Tallamy’s theories, one of the leading proponents of the theory that wildlife requires native vegetation: http://milliontrees.me/2012/08/14/doug-tallamy-refutes-his-own-theory-without-changing-his-ideology/

Posted by Million Trees on 20 Dec 2012

Using herbicides? Planting GE crops? Burning? Absolutely wrong, wrong, wrong! Where did these
guys get their information ? It sickens me.

Posted by Madeline Loder on 21 Dec 2012

The Midwest is synonymous with prairies. It is fantastic seeing them being restored. Along with its magnificent wildlife. Bison, black-footed ferrets, kit foxes, and my favorites — greater prairie chickens, lesser prairie chickens, and Attwater prairie chickens. Also, have the potholes to go along with them for the migratory birds, such as whooping cranes. To bad it is too late for the Eskimo curlew. As David Read said "prairie restoration is not for wimps." For those who are putting in the labor intensive work restoring them, we are all so very grateful to you. Because you are making all of our lives so much richer for it too.

Posted by Tim Upham on 21 Dec 2012

re: Million Trees. Your conclusions are not based on science. You are too close to the forest to see the trees, I might add, as ideology tends to do. All evidence points to the need to restore natives and stop spreading invasives. Social Darwinism, whether applied to human systems or biological ecosystems, just doesn't jibe with observable reality.

Posted by Scott Newell on 21 Dec 2012

Great article Rebecca,

Another growing national organization to look at is Wild Ones. (http://www.wildeones.org). Their mission as a non profit group is to educate and help people understand the immense benefits of landscaping with native plants. Their motto: "Healing the Earth one Yard at a Time." Keep up the good work of spreading the world Rebecca.


Posted by Hal Mann on 24 Dec 2012

Towards a healthy environment yard by yard in a time of Climate Change. One of the assumptions that are used in Climate Change studies is that our present environment is healthy and should be used as a baseline for preserving into the future.

My guess is that this assumption is wrong and that our present environment is not healthy because of development in the New World since the arrival of the Europeans, where massive alterations to our environment—the destruction of wetlands, pollution, massive loss of biodiversity, and many more environmental issues—have put our environment in extreme stress.

One way to try and restore the abundance, resiliency, and healthiness of our present environment is to try—yard by yard—to restore our environment to a time before massive development.

Of course, this will be impossible to achieve completely. But our environment 500 years ago is a more accurate example of a healthy environment than the present environment, which is challenged enough without the specter of Climate Change.

We really need a longer scope of our environmental past before we can project healthy environmental solutions for our future. Nature knew what it was doing for four billion years. Human development in the past 500 years was not done so with environmental health in mind.

Posted by Frank J. Regan on 25 Dec 2012

Great story! I love the mental image of the huge dragonflies turning around at the perimeter of the new prairie.

Posted by Enviro on 27 Dec 2012

Thank you for writing this very interesting story. Native prairie restoration is a very relevant topic for us in Saskatchewan as well (see www.npss.sk.ca/). Although it is "not for wimps," as you address in this article, the importance of making these changes far outweigh the challenges. Here's to hoping that more is done in all prairie regions - let's keep this discussion going in our own communities and put it on the priority list of land owners, politicians, educators, etc.

Posted by Shannon Dyck on 28 Dec 2012

Hate to say it but the comments posted by million trees from Dec 20th is both wrongheaded and specious. Perhaps milliontrees would benefit from some ecology and conservation biology courses. Perhaps not.

Bottom line: Grasslands, even when perpetuated by Native People, are essential components of biological diversity at all scales. In fact, it was settlers that selected savanna sites (kept open by burning) for homesteading because they offered so many amenities, many of which were lost as fires were suppressed.

Groups like Prairie Enthusiasts, Wild Ones, Openlands (IL), Prairie Rivers Network, and others continue to work to restore and protect native prairies and their work is paying off. A drive from the black oak savanna in the Kane County, IL Forest Preserve District north to Wisconsin's Bong Conservation Area and west to the Driftless area will show folks the gifts these areas provide.

Posted by David Zaber on 29 Dec 2012

I have taken ecology classes and read many books on the subject, including two specifically about prairie restorations (Miracle under the Oaks and Restoring Nature). But I didn’t need that information to know that I don’t want my public park to be sprayed with toxic pesticides and my neighborhood to be subjected to prescribed burns that pollute the air and frequently cause wildfires.

Posted by Million Trees on 03 Jan 2013

Wonderful article. Here in Chicago there are numerous groups working on prairie restoration. It's interesting seeing how far prairies have come in the city over the past 6 years. As an undergraduate at Chicago State we had an award winning prairie but the residents across the street did not like how it looked. There was a community divided over a prairie. Today because there is this sustainability movement has erupted in cities people are beginning to understand the utility of native systems such as prairies. However what I really enjoyed about this article is about hiring someone to install or maintain a prairie or any other native landscape in a city.

What I think is commonly left out of the "restoration/conservation" discussion is the role of
landscaping companies that can offer more natural landscapes that are more resilient to drought, require less water, support native wildlife, and increases other ecosystem services while reducing the homeowners maintenance cost. I'm happy to have read this article. It gives me great satisfaction to realize how much the former Rust Belt Region is working toward a "conservation of the commons" so to speak.

Posted by Kellen Marshall on 05 Jan 2013

Dexter, Michigan was originally heavily wooded (as was most of the entire state), this area was never a prairie.

While I commend them for creating a prairie ecosystem if they want to restore the former farm land, they would be planting a forest of trees, not creating a prairie.

Historical accounts from two centuries ago point to dense forests of hardwood surrounding Detroit & no access to the interior of the state at all when they later decided to relocate the capitol from Detroit to Lansing (then non-existent).

Posted by eje on 08 Jan 2013

Thank you for all the interesting comments, folks — and for reading my story. One rich vein here is the question at the heart of all restoration efforts: what is the baseline for restoration? Pre-European settlement? Pre-human settlement? Landscapes change naturally through time, as well. It's an important question, one most thoughtful conservationists have considered, and not an easy one to answer. That said, I think most of them would wager that just about any historical landscape they'd attempt to recreate would provide greater ecological benefits to wildlife and people alike than a lawn or a cornfield or a parking lot.

Posted by Rebecca Kessler on 09 Jan 2013

A great article, Rebecca, very timely and to the point. A couple of side note observations, from a prairie novice who replaced a quarter-acre suburban lawn five years ago, using a prairie-restoration specialist (Prairie Restorations in Princeton, MN):

First: You are right about using Roundup. While this may fly in the face of the environmental ethics of many, it is an efficient and cost effective way to get rid of the weeds in the "old" lawn, and get off to a good start.

Second, eaçh site is different, a reminder of what the French call "terroir." A seed mix that works well in one place may result, after a couple of seasons, in a runaway takeover by one species, in our case, Monarda (purple beebalm). Be ready to spray and replant as needed.

That said, we enjoy the butterflies, the dragonflies, the return of prairie animals (and yes, the occasional feral cat).

As for cost, the annual upkeep is just about the same as for our former, unlamented, fescue lawn.
Posted by Jonathan Scoll on 30 Oct 2013


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rebecca kesslerABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rebecca Kessler is a freelance science and environmental journalist based in Providence, Rhode Island. A former senior editor at Natural History, her work has been published by ClimateCentral.org, Conservation, Discover, Natural History, ScienceNOW, ScienceInsider, and Environmental Health Perspectives. She has previously written for Yale Environment 360 about the fatal impact fishing gear is having on whales in the North Atlantic.



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