Reclaim the Prairie
Recreating a paradise of weeds in Illinois
January 15, 1992
In which I imagine a future in which the seeds of prairie plants rival corn and soybeans in Illinois. It could happen—if Monsanto finds a way to make a dime out of it.
Congressmen being to national parks what acorns are to oak trees, Rep. Bob Michel has been importuned to create a Lincoln Tallgrass Prairie National Park in Cass County. As we reported in November, Springfield artist Bill Crook envisions the return of 15,000 acres of the Panther Creek watershed (parts of which already are a state-owned nature preserve) into the tallgrass prairie and oak savanna that grew there before the white man ruined it all with the plow and the Parade of Homes. Such reconstructed environments could also host re-introduced native animals like the bison, the bobcat, and the elk, native animals that never learned to live on government checks and that thus are extinct in modern Illinois.
This is not a new idea. The Progressive-era landscape architect Jens Jensen—he designed Lincoln Memorial Garden—proposed way back in 1915 that land be set aside for a tall grass prairie national park. Rutgers geographer Frank Popper has proposed converting much of the Plains states into a vast "buffalo commons." And the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hopes to transform 8,600 acres of Iowa farmland into a prairie learning center as part of what consultants to the project describe as maybe the biggest landscape ecology project going in the U.S.; the Walnut Creek National Wildlife Refuge runs through the middle of Iowa corn and soybean country, roughly twenty miles east of Des Moines, and like the Panther Creek site was assembled originally by a big power company that no longer needs the land.
If they build it, will people come? A senior landscape planner working on the Walnut Creek project told me, "There is some skepticism that the general public will find appeal in visiting a prairie." This rather understates the public's indifference to prairie landscapes. Illinoisans seemed never to love the pristine prairie when they had it. The uplands in Cass County around Panther Creek for example were known locally as "barrens"—weed-covered empty lots on a township scale. The locals regarded the plow the way a suburbanite regards his Weed-Eater, as a force for civilization and cultivation in all respects.
The how-to book that explains the conversion of farms into prairie parks is not a thick one. Naturalist Daryl Smith of the University of Northern Iowa, who aims to reconstruct two types of prairie and two types of savannah, says, "We'll have to start from scratch on most of it." Local seed stocks of native grasses and forbes are limited. For the first few years, as few as 50 acres a year may be planted; after those early plots have matured, however, their plants can supply seed for the rest of the site.
Assuming prairie restoration on this scale can be done, we are left to decide whether it ought to be done. The Illinois countryside is increasingly redundant economically, especially now that changes in the tax laws have dulled the appeal of weekend homes among well-to-do Springfieldian eager to commune with the mosquito and the cockleburr. Its sole productive role is as a site where city folks dump the things they don't want, like landfills and trailer parks and factories.
Objections will be raised that bringing back the prairie will destroy prime farmland. Converting fields to grass would change the use of the land, certainly, but it wouldn't destroy it. (It's farming that destroys farmland, at least the way we farm.) Such conversion would probably eliminate some farms, although a few local farmers may have to be hired to cultivate monoculture plots of those prairie plants whose seed is harvestable by machine.
These new career possibilities are unlikely to mollify farm groups unhappy about the loss of land on which they might expand their operations. (In Iowa, local officials also are worried about the removal from county tax rolls of so large a chunk of property.) But they do conjure up the wonderful image of Farmer John showing up at the coffee shop where his buddies, suppressing grins, ask him about his coneflower yield.
The feds' "willing seller" policy is a concession to locals who are quick to anger over eminent domain takings by federal agencies. This preserves the government's reputation as a good neighbor but it complicates planning. Active farming within such a refuge means the possibility of conflicts over pesticide use and weeds. Concedes one of the planners of Walnut Creek, "It's going to be weedy. With 8,600 acres you're not going to be able to manicure it."
However, native prairie plants do not cope well under disturbed environments typical of farming. The real weed problem (at least until the new prairie gets established) will be the threat of invasion into the prairie-to-be by Eurasian exotics from nearby lawns and roadsides. Similarly, while the park's neighbors are likely to urge that bobcats and the like be fenced in, the real management problem is keeping neighbors' varmints—pet dogs and cats and children, mainly—fenced out. Pets pose real threats to native birds and other animals, although bobcats might do more to teach our Bowsers some manners than their owners usually do.
I have misgivings about the project. For example, naming it after Lincoln—a man who gravitated to ever-larger cities his whole life and who by all accounts hated the country life—seems to distort his memory rather than honor it. And building a prairie park would mean a radical reformation of the ecology but not the economy of rural central Illinois. Growing Indian grass that nobody wants is no dumber than growing corn nobody wants, and it's a lot cheaper; we won't have to subsidize the price of big bluestem so the Pakistanis can buy it. ●
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