Prairie restoration is an ecologically friendly way to restore some of the prairie land that was lost to industry, farming and commerce. For example, the U.S. state of Illinois alone once held over 35,000 square miles (91,000 km2) of prairie land and now just 3 square miles (7.8 km2) of original prairie land exist.
Ecologically, prairie restoration aids in conservation of earth's topsoil, which is often exposed to erosion from wind and rain when prairies are plowed under to make way for new commerce. Conversely, much more of the prairie lands have become the fertile fields on which cereal crops of corn, barley and wheat are grown.
Many prairie plants are also highly resistant to drought, temperature extremes, disease, and native insect pests. They are frequently used for xeriscaping projects in arid regions of the American West.
A restoration project of prairie lands can be large or small. A backyard prairie restoration will enrich soil, help with erosion and take up extra water in excessive rainfalls. Prairie flowers are attractive to native butterflies and other pollinators. On a larger scale, communities and corporations are creating areas of restored prairies which in turn will store organic carbon in the soil and help maintain the biodiversity of the 3000 plus species that count on the grasslands for food and shelter.
Types of plants
Prairie plants consist of grasses and forbs. Grasses, which are monocots, are similar to what may be in a yard, but grasses in the prairie will be of a broader leaf. Some prominent tallgrass prairie grasses include Big Bluestem, Indiangrass, and Switchgrass. Midgrass and shortgrass species include Little Bluestem and Buffalograss. Forbs fall into an unusual category. They are not grasses, trees or shrubs, but are herbaceous and share the field with the less diverse grasses. Most wildflowers and legumes are forbs. Forbs are structurally specialized to resist herbaceous grazers such as American bison, and their commonly hairy leaves help deter the cold and prevent excessive evaporation. Many of the forbs contain secondary compounds that were discovered by the American Natives and are still used widely today. One particular forb, the purple coneflower, is recognized more readily by its scientific name Echinacea purpurea, or just Echinacea, which is used as an herbal remedy for colds.
Early prairie restoration efforts tended to focus largely on a few dominant species, typically grasses, with little attention to seed source. With experience, later restorers have realized the importance of obtaining a broad mix of species and using local ecotype seed.
Care of prairies
Fire is a big component to the success of grasslands, large or small. Controlled burns, with a permit, are recommended every 4–8 years (after two growth seasons) to burn away dead plants; prevent certain other plants from encroaching (such as trees) and release nutrients into the ground to encourage new growth. A much more wildlife habitat friendly alternative to burning every 4–8 years is to burn 1/4 to 1/8 of a tract every year. This will leave wildlife a home every year and still accomplish the task of burning. The Native Americans may also have used the burns to control pests such as ticks.
If controlled burns are not possible, rotational mowing is recommended as a substitute.
One of the newer methods available is holistic management, which uses livestock as a substitute for the keystone species such as bison. This allows the rotational mowing to be done by animals which in turn mimics nature more closely. Holistic management also can use fire as a tool, but in a more limited way and in combination with the mowing done by animals.
Some popular prairie restoration projects have been completed and maintained by conservation departments, such as Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, located in Wilmington, Illinois. This restoration project is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. It sits on part of the Joliet Army Ammunition Plant, specifically on an area once contaminated from TNT manufacturing. Since 1997, the project has opened some 15,000 acres (61 km2) of restored prairie to the public.
Another large restoration project finds its home on the ample area of Fermilab; a U.S. governmental atomic accelerator laboratory located in Batavia, Illinois. Fermilab's 6,800 acres (28 km2) sit a top fertile farmland and the prairie restoration project consists of approximately 1,000 acres (4.0 km2) of that. This project began in 1971 and continues today with the help of Fermilab employees and many community teachers, botanists and volunteers.
- The Importance of using Local Ecotype Plant Material, Iowa Prairie Network
- Coughlin, Chrissy. "Allan Savory: How livestock can protect the land". GreenBiz. Retrieved 5 April 2013.
- The Prairie Enthusiasts Grassland protection and restoration in the upper Midwest.
- Prairie Plains Resource Institute
- Prairie Parcel Restoration
- Prairies Forever
- Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie
- Fermilab Prairie Prairie at the Fermilab Accelerator at Batavia, IL
- Prairie Restorations, Inc.
- Citizens for Conservation A non-profit centered in Barrington, IL restoring prairie, savanna and wetland habitats.
- Sauk Prairie Conservation Alliance, located in central Wisconsin; instrumental in the rehabilitation of the Sauk Prairie on the Badger Army Ammunition Plant
- International Crane Foundation, restores prairies and other crane habitats.
- Youcanchangetheplanet.org - A non-profit organization dedicated to sustainable conservation and the rehabilitation of prairies, forests, and wetlands.
- American Prairie Foundation - A non-profit organization devoted to creating a prairie-based wildlife reserve in northeastern Montana.