Or, more accurately, the process of saving began.
In a distant room, around old lab table, people came together with a common purpose, which was to save Benedict Prairie from fading from existence. Most had never heard of it before a couple of months ago, though several lived nearby. Benedict has been saved more than once. You can read about early work done by the UW-Milwaukee Field Station in this account Phillip Whitford published in 1968. Thirty years ago, when Jim Reinartz of the UW-Milwaukee field station cleared the brush and started burning again. More recently, stewardship waned due to limited resources and reduced capacity. Still, The Field Station knows the prairie’s value, even if it’s too distant to hold closely, so a recent candid assessment of Benedict’s health has shaken things loose. The Field Station, contacted The Praire Enthusiasts, which was the best thing that could be done in the interest of the prairie and the public. Within days, several people had visited the site and started discussing next steps. An email thread grew and grew. A meeting was set.
I’ve never seen anything like this happen. The prairie fire alarm was pulled, and all of the right people came out woodwork almost instantly and effortlessly. The meeting wasn’t just a discussion of what the prairie needs; it was about concrete steps to be taken immediately and continuing into the future to make Benedict health again. It was also a discussion about how to make this sustainable.
Other prairies like this have been saved and returned to good health. It just hasn’t been done most places or very often. Where there was nothing a couple of months ago, there is now a local community of volunteer stewards that can bring everything needed–connection to the local community, brush work, herbicides, fire, fire, fire, and more fire (and with insurance). This will work; it works when there is candor and ego is surprassed by the task at hand. There will be costs, but much of it will simply be what people are willing to do above and beyond the demands of their daily lives, because they care a whole awful lot.
Really how valuable is a six-acre mesic that has really become a three-acre mesic, black soil prairie? Well, it’s likely that those three acres, among the plants, invertebrates, and other soil biota, hold more total native biodiversity than most tracts of open space an order of magitude or two greater in size, and most of the things there now can be found nowhere else on the local landscape. Here, we can save all of that, by saving a few or several acres. One other similar site is protected in southeastern wisconsin. It’s the Luther Parker Cememetary in Muskego, which just recently survived a lawsuit that would have forced the City to start mowing it; it’s stewarded. Another is privately owned and well-managed in Somers. Another is privately owned and not managed at all just east of Burlington. Another just west of the Root River in Franklin is owned by Milwaukee County, but isn’t burned. These are all that are left of the unbroken sod, species, and genes upon which the rich, sweet soil prairies were built. These are all that are left from which we can restore some of what was lost. This reason alone underscores our obligation to the preservation and restoration of these prairies in the present…but to lose them is to deny others the same rich human experience that we’ve been priveleged to.
The greatest threat to prairies was once the plow, because over millenia prairies slowly developed some of the best soil for farming in the world. Perhaps, in a way, it’s still the threat. It’s why we have so little to begin with. It’s why so few people even know prairie, or demand it.
Today we are losing what few prairies remain, their beauty, and the thousands of species that comprise them, because they are forgotten, neglected, or misunderstood by the public and land managers alike. We are losing them quickly, and this is often the case even for prairies held in the public trust. Find a prairie near you. Help save it.
Disclaimer: These are my words, not those of my employer. These are issues of public concern raised on personal time. They are legally protected.