RESTORING THE PRAIRIE
GRAND ISLAND, Neb. — More than 20 conservation-minded volunteers braved the cold Saturday morning to sow seeds that will help to transform the barren, snow-covered field they walked through into a beautiful, diverse prairie in the spring.
The volunteers were part of the Nature Conservancy's ongoing effort to restore small patches of former cropland in the Platte River Valley in central Nebraska to the vibrant prairie that dominated the area before the arrival of European settlers.
Leading the team of volunteers was event coordinator Evan Barrientos, a Nature Conservancy Hubbard Fellow working to restore Nebraska prairie.
The team of volunteers Barrientos was leading was focused on sowing seeds.
"We are taking buckets full of seed of 141 species of native prairie plants and scattering them over what is now a dirt field," he said. "In the future, this is going to be restored into a diverse and healthy prairie."
The Nature Conservancy's Platte River prairie project has restored more than 2,500 acres of former cropland to prairie.
Barrientos said that last summer the conservancy hired a contractor to excavate some sloughs that were once historic wetlands of the Platte River on the land the volunteers were seeding.
"We are not trying to create an exact replica of what used to be there," he said. "The idea is to create a site that holds a high diversity of species."
The seeds used were harvested from the other prairie properties in central Nebraska managed by the Nature Conservancy.
"This whole past summer, from May through October, we collected seed by hand from 141 species that we have cleaned and stored and mixed them all up," Barrientos said. "Now they are ready to go back to the land."
The volunteers were divided into teams to sow the 60acre patch of land. It contains areas of sandy soil and areas of wetland soil, so the volunteers seeded the appropriate areas with plants suited for the different soil types.
Barrientos said there are more than 141 species of native plants on the lands managed by the Nature Conservancy. The goal is to seed these restored prairies with as many different kinds of plant varieties as possible. The plants will help the prairie come alive with different species blooming in the spring, summer and fall before going dormant during winter.
With the greater diversity of plants, he said, comes a greater diversity of life through the food chain, from soil microbes and underground critters such as worms and insects to birds, reptiles, amphibians and mammals of all types.
"It is amazing that we can go from a dirt field to a site that will have more than 200 different plant species in 10 years," he said. "It is a beautiful thing when you see it."
Barrientos said that restoration of the prairie could not be accomplished without the help of volunteers, such as Jennifer Rumery of Minden.
"I enjoy being on the prairie even when it is cold out," Rumery said.
She said she was a volunteer last summer, helping the conservancy harvest the seeds that the volunteers were sowing Saturday.
"I think I collected some of the seeds that we'll be sowing today," she said.
Later this year she will return to see the fruit of her labor as the newly restored prairie begins to take shape.
"Just being a part of the restoration is amazing," she said. "The prairie is important to all of us. For me, it is a sacred outdoor place. It is my spiritual activity. The prairies need to be here."
Another volunteer and a member of the Nebraska Master Naturalists program, Mike Ford, came from Lincoln for the project.
"The reason I do this is that I love the great outdoors," Ford said. "The Master Naturalists is a great organization that has so many opportunities and so many resources, such as the Nature Conservancy.
"This is my opportunity to be outside and to give back to the state that I love. It is a cold day," Ford said, "but I don't care, as I just want to be outside and doing my part."
Barrientos said the Nature Conservancy is "really grateful for people coming out and supporting us."
"It is an important part of our work," he said. "We aren't just trying to restore healthy prairies, but involving people to be a part of it and to benefit from it as well."
The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. To date the conservancy and its more than 1 million members have helped protect 130 million acres worldwide.
"We are not trying to create an exact replica of what used to be there. The idea is to create a site that holds a high diversity of species."
Evan Barrientos, Nature Conservancy Hubbard Fellow