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New Prairie Created From Ground Up

October 21, 1989|SHARMAN ESAREY | REUTER

DIXON, Ill. — The small amount of virgin prairie left in North America is to some a sad reminder of what progress can bring.

The tall-grass prairie once covered 142 million acres, an area the size of Texas. It stretched from Indiana west to Kansas and from Canada south to Texas.

Trying to preserve the bit and pieces that are left today is no longer enough, experts say. And so there is the Nachusa Grasslands--a prairie being restored.

Restorationists wooed by the science, history, environment and aesthetics of the prairie, have planted hundreds of acres of tall grasses here and elsewhere in the Midwest, in school yards, gardens, forest preserves and fallow farmland. Volunteers have scorched unwelcome weeds, maimed alien trees and hauled away invading bracken--all to make the land habitable again for Big and Little Blue Stem, two grasses characteristic of North American prairie lands.

"We felt the need to build big ones," said Robert Betz, a biology professor at Northeastern Illinois University and an authority on tall-grass prairies.

Betz and his colleagues planted the first seeds in 1972 at Fermi Laboratory, near Batavia. It is now 750 acres of prairie, marsh and woods.

"If we did anything, we showed you can start this whole procedure. We think they can be built," he said of prairies.

That discovery helped launch a restoration movement that seeks to return native plant and animal life to lands disturbed by grazing and plowing.

"These prairies are not the original thing. We don't know how long it takes--100 to 1,000 years," said Peter Schramm, a biology professor at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., and a restoration authority. But "they're a reasonable facsimile."

Buffalo, for example, no longer roam. The Nature Conservancy, a private nonprofit conservation organization that bought the first 125 acres of Nachusa in 1986, plans eventually to reintroduce a herd of 12 to 15 bison here.

The bison's unique grazing habits will give Nachusa's endangered Kittentail flower the sunlight it needs to survive as a species, said Stephen Packard, director of science and stewardship for the Illinois Nature Conservancy.

In late autumn, volunteers will return to Nachusa, now 610 acres, to harvest seed and to add another 50 acres of grasses to the 60 already sown. They will plant near the reserve's hills, hoping the high quality prairie plants on these will stretch outward.

"It's a Noah's Ark thing--the idea you're saving something for posterity," Betz said.

The tall-grass prairie, with its 250-odd plant species, created a fertile soil ideal for planting wheat and corn and soybeans. With the introduction of the steel moldboard plow in the 19th Century, farmers could cut through the grasses' tangled roots to use the land for their crops. But with the creation of the world's breadbasket came a quick demise for the prairie, and later, a difficult path toward restoration.

During the Dust Bowl time of the 1930s Aldo Leopold began planting prairie grasses at the University of Wisconsin arboretum, but they withered.

Scientists discovered that fire, a natural event on the virgin prairie, was the missing ingredient.

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