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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) knocks back the woody cover in the corridor. Prairie grasses and wildflowers often appear in the cleared power line. Removing more trees from parts of the Smith Park should encourage more long-dormant prairie plants to reappear.

Trees and other woody cover are desirable in most places, but they are definitely the enemies of prairie species. Before settlement, periodic fires neutralized the spread of woody plants such as rough-leaved dogwood, redbud, honey locust, eastern red cedar and other species, allowing sun-loving prairie plants to obtain the sunlight they require. Following settlement, fire suppression efforts had the added effect of halting the suppression of woody growth. It wasn't long before trees overtook most of the prairie remnants on the Smith Park and Saeger Woods.

Clearing these dense thickets by hand would have been an interminable project, but scraping them with a bulldozer would have disturbed the soil and might have destroyed dormant plants and seeds.

Fortunately, KCP&L donated the use of their "tree-eating" equipment to help restore the prairie. This equipment would not disturb the soil and would not leave hundreds of downed trees.

It took about a week for workers to remove trees and thickets from about 15 acres of prairie. It was a huge jumpstart to the restoration project.

The following spring, the Conservation Department and the Kansas City Park Department conducted a prescribed burn. Most trees cannot tolerate fire, but burning invigorates prairie grasses and wildflowers, which quickly resprout from their deep root systems after a fire.

A few months after the first burn, the white, snapdragon-like flowers of beardtongue blossomed in newly cleared areas. Big bluestem and other prairie grasses also began to reclaim open areas and rose head-high in places.

It was an encouraging start.

Since then, a cooperative management effort between the Department of Conservation and Kansas City Parks has maintained the momentum. More trees were taken out last spring, increasing the prairie management area to about 40 acres. A second prescribed burn took place in spring 2000, and wildflower seed collected from nearby prairies has been hand-sown each year to bolster the natural wildflower population. In addition, a long-running eradication campaign will be carried out against Sericea lespedeza, an aggressive exotic plant that chokes out prairie species. A third burn is planned this year.

In addition to the prairie restoration work, workers also created a hiking trail on the area. The 2-mile trail loops around the restoration area and provides access to the prairie.

The Smith/Saeger properties are valuable oases of an original habitat that we almost lost completely. Thanks to restoration and protection efforts they can continue to harbor rare plants like eared false foxglove (Agalinis auriculata), a Missouri species of conservation concern. The Jerry Smith Park contains the largest known population of the plant in Missouri. The farm also attracts an unusually high concentration of American woodcock, which are squat, quail-sized, upland shorebirds.

Despite amazing progress at the Jerry Smith Park and Saeger Woods, restoring prairie land is a long-term project. More invading trees must be cut, regular prescribed burns will be needed, and the eradication of Sericea lespedeza will be an ongoing battle.

Slowly, however, the prairie landscape that greeted the government surveyor in 1826 will be reborn, even if only on a few acres.

Thanks to the "tree eaters" and intensive land management, city folk can walk amid big bluestem and blazing stars and understand the natural history of the land they occupy.

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