The Grassland Program at the James H. Barrow Biological Field Station
Native tallgrass prairies are currently one of the most endangered ecosystems in North America. They inhabited parts of Ohio from approximately five to eight thousand years ago. Over time, the extent of these grassland ecosystems decreased, which led to only a few natural prairie areas remaining in the state in recent times. As a result, several organizations participated in conserving natural grasslands such as prairies and meadows by protecting existing areas, restoring previous areas, and establishing new grasslands. One of those efforts has taken place at our own James H. Barrow Biological Field Station. The Grassland Program at the Field Station has been over a decade in the making, under the leadership and tutelage of Emliss Ricks, land stewardship manager. In 2011, the late professor of botany Matt Hils established a demonstration prairie plot of about one acre to be managed for maintaining the biodiversity of prairie plant species for educational purposes. Professor Hils also suggested the creation of a meadow that would house a diverse collection of plants and animals representative of that grassland ecosystem. Thus, while working on a project to re-route the Field Station’s trails, we came across a 20-acre agricultural fallow field with panoramic views of green hills surrounding the confluence of Silver and Eagle Creeks. At that place, now known as Hils Vista, Ricks began the efforts in 2013 to transform that abandoned field filled with invasive species into a diverse and colorful meadow of native warm-season grasses and forbs (herbaceous wildflowers).
There are many ecological benefits to establishing our meadow. Chief among them is the protection of Silver Creek watershed, as many prairie plants have roots that can reach 15 feet into the soil. This deep and dense root system improves soil health and nutrients, as well as reduces erosion by anchoring the soil in place. The vegetation above ground is packed together reducing surface runoff, which combined with the root system, improves water retention and seepage into the ground. Studies also suggest that grassland plants, with their above and below ground biomass, effectively contribute to carbon sequestration from the atmosphere.
Another goal is to increase the diversity of plants by replacing invasive plants with grassland species. Over the years, our team has planted more than a dozen native grass species (such as big bluestem, Indian grass, side oats grama, little bluestem, and switchgrass) and over thirty native wildflower species (such as purple coneflower, butterfly milkweed, blazing stars, and prairie dock). This plant diversity creates habitats for a variety of animals such as insects, small mammals, and grassland birds. Here, they provide nesting sites for ground nesting birds such as bobolinks, meadowlarks, savannah sparrows, redwing blackbirds, among others. As a result, this diverse meadow creates opportunities for contemplation through its sheer beauty with grasses “dancing” in the wind, colorful flowers, and opportunities to observe the wildlife in action.
The Field Station’s grasslands are also an outdoor laboratory for experiential learning through internships and courses. Internships provide students of all majors (and particularly those interested in careers in environmental fields) opportunities to build an understanding about the relationships of living things and their environment—an introduction to ecology. Students also acquire knowledge and skills in land stewardship and ecological management. This includes plant identification, control of invasive species, cultivation and planting, monitoring plant survival and success, and field methods. Maintaining a meadow requires intense management including prescribed burns and regular mowing. Here, interns gain valuable lessons on how to use fire and mowing as tools, the safety practices for both, and the reasons for their use. Such practices replicate the natural processes that regulate these grasslands; mowing replaces the impact of herds of grazing animals such as bison, and controlled burns replace the wildfires that are integral to the ecology of these ecosystems.
In terms of courses, students can take various classes taught at the Field Station. For example, in Ecology students learn about grassland ecology; they apply field techniques for sampling vegetation parameters and contribute to the meadow improvement by plantings seedlings and harvesting seeds for cultivation. In a visual arts course such as Landscape Painting and Drawing, students explore ways to represent outdoor observations of natural landscapes through those artistic media. In other courses, students use the written word to record observations and reflections. In Documenting the Field Station, they engage in various creative nonfiction approaches to write about place and the environment. And Writing about Nature involves using creative writing to examine nature and draw insights about what constructs our ideas of nature and wilderness and how these concepts are significant to our lives, culture, and society.
Like any other long-term project, the Grassland Program has evolved over time. The 2013 start was humble, with only a few hand tools at our disposal; yet the crews planted four hundred tall grass plugs across the field. That hot and dry summer required constant watering, with daily carrying buckets of water over a half mile. The methods progressively improved with lessons learned from each year’s experience. And in 2015, our toolbox was upgraded with a rototiller and water tank to till larger plots and plant more grass and wildflower plugs per plot. That was the last year grass plugs were purchased because the harvesting of seeds from the one-acre prairie started our own grass plugs production.
In subsequent years, these efforts improved with better equipment and techniques. The acquisition of new power equipment allowed for the establishment of larger plots for hundreds of plugs. Implementing a regime for mowing and burning mimicked the ecological processes previously mentioned. Besides now growing our own plugs in greenhouse conditions, the larger quantity of grass and forb plugs were supplemented with direct broadcasting of seeds harvested from our fields. This direct seeding has become a very effective method to establish new plants, and all this work is yielding the desired results. The preferred grasses and forbs are well-established in some areas. Those plants are producing seeds. And the meadow is now self-seeding and starting to thrive on its own.
The gradual success of the Grassland Program has only been possible through the help and support of dozens of students, Field Station staff, faculty, volunteers, and the generous longtime financial support from the Paul and Maxine Frohring Foundation. Among the Foundation’s numerous gifts, two other initiatives have converged with the Grassland Program in the last two years to strengthen ecological management and long-term conservation of the Field Station. These include establishing a database as a repository for historic studies and new projects and setting up a geographic information system (GIS) for mapping the Field Station. This occurred for a few reasons. Little information about the grasslands had been documented in electronic media, as most of it was recorded in Ricks’ archives, paper maps, and memory and documenting and organizing this information in digital format was critically important for it to be analyzed and updated over time. The first piece of that convergence used historical imagery and the GIS in the summer of 2021 to map grassland areas planted in the past and the newly planted areas that summer.
The second piece of that convergence focused on the database initiative during the summer of 2022. The Paul and Maxine Frohring Foundation provided a specific grant for the Grassland Program and contributed to the visioning of its work for that summer: documenting all the program’s information generated up to that point. This included the project’s history, past field notes and observations, quantitative data, as well as the field protocols and how these methods improved over time. This would secure the current knowledge and understanding of those grassland areas to support their management and long-term viability. Furthermore, this allowed us to hire two interns dedicated to this program over the summer—Colton Allen and Jacob Plisko—co-authors of this article.
Moving forward, our management practices for conserving the grassland areas will progress. With the meadow continuing to thrive, our goal is that it becomes self-sustaining with occasional mowing and burning to maintain its ecological integrity. Moreover, in 2017 work started on a third grassland area of about three acres that is also a former agricultural field. The practices developed in the meadow are guiding our management of this new area. Because it is located along State Route 82, it will serve as a display of the grassland ecosystem’s vibrancy to those passing along the road.
Such ecological management will be challenging as climate change sets upon us in a changing world. With this, we will need to integrate all pieces of the natural world, which includes the human dimension. Here, the words of Aldo Leopold in A Sand County Almanac about the land ethic are as relevant today as they were in 1949: “All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts . . . The land ethics simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.”
You are part of our community. Whatever your passions are, you can learn more about the Grassland Program and other programs at Field Station at hiram.edu/barrowfieldstation. Or just come visit us-we are right down the road.
By: Michael Benedict, Ph.D., director of the James H. Barrow and Northwoods Field Stations; Emliss Ricks, land stewardship manager at the Barrow Field Station; Colton Allen, student intern; and Jacob Plisko, student intern