Lighting a Fire for Prairie

By Carol Davit, photos by Noppadol Paothong | August 29, 2011
From Missouri Conservationist: Sep 2011

Forty-five years ago, a small group of Missourians held a meeting at Boone Tavern in Columbia to talk about prairie. Or rather, the disappearance of it.

This was 1966, nearly 100 years after the introduction of the first steam-powered tractor, which marked the beginning of accelerated land conversion to row crops. Even before statehood, the plow had begun turning over Missouri’s inheritance of 15 million acres of tall grass prairie. By mid-20th century, 1 percent of the state’s original prairie was all that remained. The vast native grasslands that once rolled unbroken across much of Missouri were gone, and remaining fragments were isolated, their wildlife value much diminished.

Members of the group were alarmed at the loss of prairie—an ecosystem that once covered at least one-third of the state. Among the citizens in the group were its founders, Bill Crawford and the late Don Christisen, who were also career biologists with the Department of Conservation.

“In those days, the Department’s funding for prairie acquisition was limited,” said Crawford, “and there was little awareness among the public about how quickly prairie was disappearing. So we asked, ‘What about prairie?’ and citizens all over the state signed up as members. We started a fire. Prairie had been a forgotten resource, but the Missouri Prairie Foundation came along at the right time.”

Saving Prairies

The Missouri Prairie Foundation’s first members, including its first president, the physician Dr. Maurice Lonsway of St. Louis, were determined to save prairie and help Missourians understand the importance of doing so. An article in the Missouri Conservationist helped inform the public about the new organization.

In 1969, the Foundation had enough money to mail out a typewritten member newsletter, but not much else. So when it borrowed $10,000 to buy the 40-acre Friendly Prairie that was for sale in Pettis County, it was a big deal. “That purchase,” wrote long-time Foundation member Joel Vance, “showed the world that [the Foundation] was serious about putting cash on the line.”

A few years later, the Foundation went on to buy Golden Prairie in Barton County, named a National Natural Landmark in 1975. Golden, now 630 acres, is today part of a 1,100-acre block of private land managed by the Foundation.

Through the support of its members and other private sources, the Foundation has continued to acquire and protect land over the past four decades. The organization now owns 2,600 acres of land in 15 tracts across the state. Through constant and vigilant management—including invasive species control, tree removal and prescribed fire—the Foundation maintains a high level of biodiversity on prairies it owns. Several Foundation properties are managed by the Department, and several Department prairies, and those owned by other partners, including Kansas City Parks and Recreation, benefit from invasive species control provided by the Foundation’s prairie operations manager—one of the Foundation’s only two staff members.

In late 2010, the Foundation acquired its most recent tract, an 80-acre property next to its Coyne Prairie in Dade County. It has begun an ambitious restoration plan for the tract, which will enlarge the prairie landscape in the area, part of the Golden Grasslands Conservation Opportunity Area.

Grassroots Advocacy—for Grass Roots

In addition to conserving thousands of acres of prairie through land ownership and management, the Foundation has protected thousands more through its outreach, advocacy and education efforts. In the 1970s, the Foundation and other conservation groups successfully advocated for the establishment of Prairie State Park in Barton County, the first parcel of which was purchased in 1980. Today, at nearly 4,000 acres, the park is Missouri’s largest publicly owned prairie.

Emeritus board member Lowell Pugh, of Golden City, has fond memories of his decades long friendship with Don Christisen, the Foundation’s co-founder. “We were the first Missourians to talk with Katherine Ordway about prairie conservation,” said Lowell. In 1972, Pugh and Christisen escorted Ms. Ordway, the famous prairie philanthropist from the East Coast, from the Springfield airport to tour Barton County prairies. Shortly after her visit with Pugh and Christisen, Ms. Ordway provided funds for The Nature Conservancy to begin purchasing prairie tracts.

In 1998, the Missouri Prairie Foundation spearheaded the formation of the Grasslands Coalition—20 conservation groups and private landowners working together to pool resources and make a lasting impact on landscape-scale, viable native grasslands. The Coalition identified several “Prairie-Chicken Focus Areas” around the state as the best remaining locations to focus conservation efforts for prairie-chickens and other prairie species. These focus areas laid the groundwork for the establishment of grassland Conservation Opportunity Areas (COAs) by the Missouri Department of Conservation, part of Missouri’s Comprehensive Wildlife Strategy.

“Our goal is to protect and restore additional blocks of prairie in grassland COAs,” said Stan Parrish, the Foundation’s current president. “We are eager to work with individual landowners, the Department of Conservation and any other partners to achieve this.” A prairie landowner himself, Parrish spends many volunteer hours conducting controlled burns and keeping a close eye on many Foundation-owned prairies.

Pooling Prairie Resources

The Foundation’s partnerships with other conservation groups and private landowners enable the restoration, management and protection of prairie on a larger scale than any one group or individual could accomplish alone. The Foundation generates enthusiasm among landowners to improve prairie habitat, shares technical knowledge with them and leverages funding for restoration work by serving as a grantee or grant partner on many projects.

Private prairie in the Mystic Plains COA in northeastern Missouri has benefited from one such recent partnership. In 2010, the Foundation completed a three-year $70,000 grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to restore native prairie and manage grasslands in Adair and Sullivan counties, partnering with the Department of Conservation and private landowners to improve more than 2,000 acres through elimination of woody cover, fence removal, hay field resting, prescribed fire assistance and invasive species control. The Foundation, private landowners and the Department of Conservation also provided funding, bringing the total sum for grassland management and restoration to $110,000. The work resulted in greater prairie species diversity, expanded open vistas and more continuous habitat needed by grassland birds and other wildlife—for less than $55 an acre.

“I have a great relationship with the Missouri Prairie Foundation,” said John Murphy, private land conservationist with the Department in Adair and Sullivan counties. “It’s like a car dealership. Foundation members are out on the showroom floor, drumming up interest among private landowners in prairie conservation. Then the landowners come to me and we talk about financing and how to get it done.”

Engaging Future Prairie Stewards

The vision statement of the Foundation “is to awaken and engage the passion of others to protect and restore native grassland communities, for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations.” Its board members, staff and members go about encouraging the prairie spark in many ways.

Since its founding, the Foundation has organized and promoted prairie symposia, seed collecting workshops, hikes, prairie campouts and prairie and glade restoration workdays; sponsored lectures and photography exhibits; and continues to host numerous prairie-related events throughout the year. It also publishes the Missouri Prairie Journal, a periodical providing detailed articles on prairie management and biodiversity, beautiful photography, and a new section this year, Steve Clubine’s Native Warm-Season Grass News.

Advice and restoration information from individual Foundation members has helped introduce others to prairie, including Rudi Roeslein of St. Louis, now a Foundation board member and an avid prairie restorationist. “I think my life used to be a lot simpler before my prairie love affair started and invaded my waking and sleeping hours with plans on how to save and restore it,” said Roeslein. “We can never completely reconstruct a real prairie but make a facsimile. That is why the Foundation’s work to conserve original prairie is so critical in giving us the benchmark of what we have to shoot for and what we need to preserve. My prairie restoration work has been a hopeful journey that has made my life richer.”

The Foundation’s now annual Prairie BioBlitz brings biologists and prairie enthusiasts together for a weekend of intense prairie nature study, species discovery and inventory, camping and fun. “The Foundation’s BioBlitz at Golden Prairie this past June was the best outdoor event I have attended in 20 years,” said Barbara Van Vleck, a Foundation member and a Missouri Master Naturalist from Kansas City. “The event provided expert instructors whose enthusiasm was inspiring as we surveyed the biodiversity found on Golden Prairie. We hear a lot about the ecosystems of forests and deserts, but I was amazed to see first-hand the wonders of Missouri’s prairies full of wildflowers and swaying grasses, teeming with colorful wildlife and beautiful birds such as the scissor-tailed flycatcher and the bright song of the dickcissel. I am a new member of the Foundation, and look forward to helping to preserve and conserve these jewels of Missouri for the enjoyment of future generations.”

When Crawford looks back at the past 45 years, his pride in the organization is obvious. “Although there is much prairie conservation work to be done by all prairie partners in the state, the Foundation has done what it set out to do,” said Crawford. “It created an awareness of the importance of prairie among citizens and continues to do so to this day. I’m proud to be a member and I invite others to join me.”

For more information about the Missouri Prairie Foundation or to become a member, visit, send a message to, or call 888-843-6739

Why Prairie Matters

  • Temperate grasslands of the world, including Missouri’s remaining tallgrass prairies, are the most endangered and least conserved of any major terrestrial habitat on earth. Missouri’s remaining prairies are stunning in their ecological wealth and complexity, and they, and all their components, are ours to conserve for the benefit of future generations.
  • In addition to their immeasurable beauty, Missouri’s prairie provides habitat for hundreds of native plant species, thousands of invertebrates (including as many as 400 different pollinating insects) and dozens of vertebrate animals.
  • Prairie plant roots, some growing as deep as 15 feet, build and anchor rich soil.
  • One acre of prairie can store at least 1 ton of carbon every year. (University of Minnesota)
  • According to research at the University of Iowa, 1 acre of established prairie can produce 24,000 pounds of roots.
  • Prairie can absorb a large volume of rainfall before runoff occurs, thereby naturally filtering water, protecting streams from flood events and helping to recharge precious groundwater supplies.

Trying to recreate the environmental services that prairies provide would be prohibitively expensive—and not nearly as biologically diverse.

October 8, 2011—An Evening on the Prairie

In conjunction with the Town of Cole Camp’s annual Oktoberfest and Prairie Day, the Missouri Prairie Foundation and Hi Lonesome Chapter of the Missouri Master Naturalists will host an Evening on the Prairie at a 400-acre private prairie just outside of town. All are welcome to participate in this free event! Afternoon wagon tours of the prairie and demonstration of bird mist netting will be followed by a complimentary reception, live music from Prairie Strings of Columbia and star gazing. For full details, and to RSVP, visit

Also In This Issue

Jay Henges shooting range
Missouri's shooting ranges target outdoor skills, safety and the next generation of hunters.
shoemaker conservation area
Learning about aquatic communities through the RAM program.

This Issue's Staff

Editor In Chief - Ara Clark
Managing Editor - Nichole LeClair Terrill
Art Director - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Bonnie Chasteen
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner
Designer - Stephanie Thurber
Artist - Mark Raithel
Circulation - Laura Scheuler