After restoring native plants at Black Jack, organizations will be bringing the prairie back to Prairie Park
photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World
Near the Robert Hall Pearson house at Black Jack Battlefield and Nature Park just outside Baldwin City, visitors can now take in a sight that hasn’t been seen in decades — the return of native prairie grass.
Restoring native prairie plants on the historic site is a project that’s been two years in the making for the Grassland Heritage Foundation and Native Lands LLC. Both organizations make it a mission to preserve and manage prairies in northeast Kansas. From June of 2020 to June of 2022, they’ve planted about 4 acres of Indiangrass — a type of prairie tallgrass — at the Black Jack project site, and plan to continue their restoration efforts on the other side of the Pearson house moving forward.
But that’s not all. The project at Black Jack was funded by the Douglas County Heritage Conservation Council’s 2020 Natural and Cultural Heritage grant program, and the Grassland Heritage Foundation and Native Lands are recipients of that grant again in 2022. This time, they’ve received $49,921, and they’re partnering with the Kansas Association for Conservation and Environmental Education, Haskell Indian Nations University and Lawrence Parks and Recreation to restore native prairie plants at Prairie Park in Lawrence.
“It’s kind of a lab, like an outdoor lab, to start to learn how to treat prairie properly,” ecologist Courtney Masterson, the owner and operator of Native Lands, told the Journal-World earlier this month. “There’s an awful lot of space in Lawrence and in Douglas County that could be brought back to this, that right now is struggling because there’s an invasive species that’s taken over.”
According to the grant application, the project at Prairie Park will create a functional prairie that will serve as both an educational space for local students and an opportunity for Douglas County residents to experience what native prairie looks like in an accessible urban site. It’s a space that less than 100 years ago, in 1937, was entirely covered with prairie plants. Today, it’s owned by the City of Lawrence and managed by the Parks and Recreation Department.
Staff with Native Lands and the Grassland Heritage Foundation, along with Haskell interns each semester through fall 2023, will make 32 trips to the project site over the two years of the project period. KACEE will be creating an online course about prairie ecology in conjunction with the project to share with teachers and students across the state.
The site itself follows the curve of East 29th Street into Whitmore Drive in the neighborhood near the park, and extends up near the park’s parking lot. The restoration work will replace the tree line behind the nearby homes with oak hickory savanna and riparian woodland trees. Along with that tree line, the land in front of that in the park proper is currently occupied by invasive tree species such as Bradford pear trees, commonly known for their white blooms and powerful odor in the spring. As many of them as possible will be removed, and the space will be replanted with tallgrass prairie plants.
photo by: Courtesy of Grassland Heritage Foundation
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When the work at Black Jack started, the area that’s now covered in tallgrass was instead overrun by thorny black locust trees, Grassland Heritage Foundation program director Kaitlyn Ammerlaan told the Journal-World. The county was once home to hundreds of thousands of acres of tallgrass prairie, according to the project application, but now less than 1% of the original prairie remains due to invasive species like these. Two years of work made a pretty good dent at Black Jack, but it’s hard to completely remove any sort of invasive species in so little time. The work’s always ongoing, Ammerlaan said.
That’s because the prairie is a “disturbance-dependent” ecosystem, Masterson said. To be truly healthy, it can’t just be left to grow. In fact, she said prairie “ceases to exist” without regular disturbances. Otherwise, invasive species like black locust trees will eventually dominate the landscape, which is what happened at Black Jack.
“So we stop treating it like a prairie, and then it turns into what we recognize as ‘American,’ what we see out our window all the time — lots of trees, lots of wood,” Masterson said. “There actually is no name for this type of ecosystem; the grass we stand on is not native. We brought all of this here, and that’s kind of what we battled with (Black Jack).”
The solution? Setting the prairie on fire. Historically, wildfires and large grazing animals like bison were the main disturbances on prairie land. Some of those fires were naturally occurring, Masterson said, but others were “prescribed,” or carried out by Indigenous people as part of their own sustainable land management practices. Controlled burns — setting planned fires at times where they won’t pose a threat to the public or fire managers — are the common method today.
The reason burning works is because prairie plants have specifically adapted to being set on fire; tallgrass roots extend many times farther underground than the roots of lawn grass, which are just inches long. Indiangrass like what is now planted at Black Jack grows far taller not only above but also below the ground; it can surpass 6 feet in both height and depth. Burning over and over leaves the prairie plants to grow back again from their deep roots, while the invasive species are unable to survive. It’s been an integral tool for their work, Masterson and Ammerlaan agreed.
“Prairie was made with fire,” Ammerlaan said. “That’s the reason it exists, because of the disturbance.”
Sprinkle in some native Douglas County seeds from nearby Ivan Boyd Prairie Preserve, a piece of prairie land managed by the county perhaps best known for containing evidence of wagon ruts caused by travel along the Santa Fe Trail, and even native wildflowers are returning among the tallgrass at Black Jack.
photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World
It’ll be slightly different to burn at Prairie Park compared to out at Black Jack, with residential homes directly nearby. Masterson said outreach has been the first step this time around, so nearby Prairie Park Elementary School and folks in the neighborhood would be aware that the controlled burns would be safe and non-intrusive. The response has been positive.
“It’s very different to do an urban fire, but the rules are the same,” Masterson said. “We’re just as safe (at Black Jack) with just as much safety equipment as we’ll be in town; we’ll just have to be more educational, get ahead of it a little bit more about smoke safety.”
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The first work day at Prairie Park took place at the end of August, and Masterson said it was well-attended. There will be a number of work days and educational events there through the next two years; the next ones are coming up in October.
First on the list is an educational event about native plants and their Indigenous importance and uses, set for Saturday, Oct. 8, from 9 a.m. to noon. Near the end of the month, there will be a work day to remove bush honeysuckle on the project site. That’s set for Saturday, Oct. 29, from 1 to 4 p.m.
For both events, participants should meet at the Prairie Park shelter at 2811 Kensington Road. To RSVP and learn more about these events, visit grasslandheritage.org/prairiepark.