Rebirth Of An Urban Prairie

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Published on: Aug. 2, 2001

Last revision: Nov. 9, 2010

In July 1998, a big dozer-like machine ravaged a quiet patch of woods in Kansas City. Within a few hours, several acres where trees once stood had been completely cleared. The only remaining evidence of the trees was a layer of wood chips.

The scene is all too common in the city, but this time the results were positive. The "destruction" wasn't a prelude to a new strip-mall, highway or housing development. Instead, it was the first major step in resurrecting a prairie.

Native prairie is rare anywhere in Missouri. Of this rich, diverse community that once covered at least a third of our state, less than one percent remains today. It seems unlikely that a fragment of this original landscape could survive the intensive land use pressures and human disturbance of a large city, but tucked away just barely within Kansas City's southern boundary, a little niche of prairie, although invaded by trees, remains intact.

The prairie is on the 360-acre Jerry Smith Park, which is owned by the Kansas City Parks and Recreation Department. It was purchased by the city in 1976. Local civic leader and philanthropist Jerry Smith donated one quarter of the land and another portion of the purchase price came from the Land and Water Conservation Fund. About one-third of the land contains fragments of restorable prairie.

The Smith Park is next to Saeger Woods Conservation Area, which is owned by the Missouri Department of Conservation. Saeger Woods is a 20-acre tract, which despite its name, also contains a tiny prairie remnant.

The General Land Office Survey notes from 1826 describe a section line just east of the Smith farm as a "smoothe rich prarie fit for cultivation the remainder of the line broken and stony..."

This brief entry reveals much about the fate of our prairies. The word "smoothe," for example, is underlined, emphasizing that the absence of rocks at the surface made the land eminently arable. In other words, it was a good target for the plow.

Almost all Missouri's "smoothe" prairies underlain by deep soils became cropland. However, "broken and stony" land was difficult to plow and sometimes survived. It is no coincidence that the best prairie remnants on the Jerry Smith Park appear on thin-soiled rocky slopes.

A large power line corridor that bisects the area provides an important clue to what much of the area once looked like. Every third year, the Kansas City Power and Light Company (KCP&L)

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