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RESTORING WOLF ROAD PRAIRIE
by Jack Pizzo
In less dense and more sensitive areas, brushwackers are the tool of choice and make short work of buckthorn clones, often as dense as 75 to 100 stems per square yard. Herbicide application follows. Each stem is meticulously daubed with Garlon. Hand loppers are used for fine tuning buckthorn clearings or for juvenile plants advancing into open prairie from large thickets. However, the use of hand tools only at Wolf Road Prairie is outdated. There are simply too many buckthorn stems now for this method to be effective in saving biodiversity in time to reverse the further loss of native plants.
During the growing season, the leaves of buckthorn plants are treated with foliar applications using Garlon or Roundup. This chemical is absorbed through the leaves and travels to the roots, causing the plant to lose the ability to sprout new leaves the following year.
Another threat facing Wolf Road Prairie is Phragmites australis (common reed). Jack showed a map identifying the wetland and the four acre Phragmites core in red where this invasive species is most prolific. Phragmites grows very rapidly and shades out native wetland plants and alters wetland hydrology. SCGA is raising funds to hire a professional contractor to eliminate Phragmites from the Wolf Road Prairie wetland with the approval of IDNR, FPDCC and INPC.
Jack talked about the contours of the land and how geology and hydrology determine which plants grow where and which animals are attracted to the those ecosystems. If this balance is disturbed, the domino effect kicks in and the degradation of natural processes begins.
Jack emphasized that prescribed burns in spring and fall provide the foundation for natural areas restoration. Land choked with dried vegetation or duff reflects the energy of sunlight.
Dark ground following a spring burn absorbs this heat and results in earlier native plant growth unimpeded by surface duff. This gives prairie plants a better chance to grow, produce seed and survive.
Seed collection is critical to the survival of native gene pools. Each species has its own growing season and seed ripening cycle. Jack said, "Preservation through propagation represents the best science to save rare plants". Seed is gathered and returned to areas in the preserve undergoing restoration. Seed can also be transported to greenhouses. Here the seeds are cleaned and processed. When seedlings germinate, they can be grown in nurseries under controlled conditions. In about a year or two, the plants will be mature enough to be returned to restoration areas. Anybody with a small garden can grow native plants for seed production.
Restoration is all about space competition. Non-native trees found in the prairie (a treeless grassland), include ash, elm, cottonwood, honeysuckle, grey dogwood and buckthorn. Tree and brush roots soak up rain as it falls and hoard moisture in the soil. Native plants face drought and become stressed. As invasive woody species take over more land, native species are out-competed for ground, air space and light and a decline in native plant, animal, bird and insect populations begins.
Jack closed by saying that "SCGA is focusing on the tough restoration areas at Wolf Road Prairie where buckthorn stems are impenetrable and native plants are being lost each season at a record pace. Our purpose at Wolf Road Prairie, one of the rarest natural areas in the world, is to work hand in hand with landowners and the INPC, recruit volunteers and reach out to educate and involve the public in supporting the restoration of natural areas like Wolf Road Prairie.
We envision that in just a few years of intensive restoration work, we can bring Wolf Road Prairie back to how it used to be at the beginning of this century or before."
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Photos by Jack Pizzo
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