Wachiska volunteers launch campaign to preserve prairie

Farm Forum

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) – The shrub-like leadplant with its masses of tiny purple blossoms and the black-eyed Susans with their bright yellow petals have already started going to seed at Dieken Prairie.

Standing on the tiny pocket of virgin ground, a remnant of the tallgrass prairie that once covered 170 million acres of North America, Elizabeth Nelson thinks about brave pioneers looking for a better life and the complex ecosystem that created some of the most fertile soil in the world, prime real estate for a wide assortment of insects, plants and animals – some of them now endangered.

“You really feel the immensity of opportunity and challenges (pioneers faced) when you are out there on the prairie,” said Nelson, a member of the Wachiska Audubon Society.

“Good prairie land also has the attributes of prime farmland,” she told the Lincoln Journal Star (http://bit.ly/2a7e58d ). “It’s lucrative to plow up a prairie and plant it in corn.”

For the past four decades, volunteers with the local branch of the Audubon Society have been working to preserve pockets of prairie in 17 Nebraska counties. But time has taken its toll on many of the group’s core volunteers, who are no longer as spry as they were 40 years ago. At the same time, the group continues to add to the number of acres it watches over.

Facing that reality, Wachiska has launched a $1 million fundraising campaign to establish an endowment that will be used to hire an employee to care for land, apply for grants, organize volunteers and work with landowners. The Wachiska Audubon group, a nonprofit, gets very little money from the National Audubon Society, Nelson said. Most of its funding comes from local supporters.

Wachiska Audubon owns, and pays taxes on, eight prairie sites ranging in size from 4 to 32 acres, said member Tim Knott of Lincoln. It has easement agreements with the owners of 24 additional sites ranging in size from 3 to 40 acres. The easements are legal agreements between the landowner and Audubon Society to safeguard remnants of prairie.

Often, the bugs and birds – like the western meadowlark with is stunning yellow breast – that thrive in the prairie’s complex ecological system have found it difficult to transition to monoculture fields dominated by corn or soybeans, said Wachiska member Linda Brown of Lincoln.

Preserving the natural beauty of the increasingly rare prairies is a public service, Knott said, and important for both educating people about the natural landscape and for the wildlife habitat they provide.

Less than 4 percent of North America’s tallgrass prairie remains, according to the National Park Service.

“Why do you preserve and protect the Grand Canyon? It’s on a different scale, but just as much natural heritage,” Nelson said.