December 15, 2015; by Dr. Dwayne Estes, Botanical Research Institute & Austin Peay State University's Center for Field Biology
Most of us have heard the old adage about how a squirrel could travel from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River without ever having to touch the ground. As a child, I remember marveling at the thought of dense, dark forests covering the great expanse of eastern North America. Such an enterprising squirrel would had to have taken a very circuitous route in order to accomplish such a feat, for the Mid-South U.S. was riddled in pre-settlement times with millions of acres of naturally open prairies, savannas, barrens, glades, and open woodlands. The largest grassland system in the Mid-South was the “Big Barrens” of the Pennyroyal Plain of Kentucky and Tennessee, which covered an estimated 3.7 million acres as of 1800. The annual fires that once swept this extensive karst plain began to subside in the 1820s and 1830s and eyewitness accounts detail how the prairie vanished by the Civil War as it succeeded to oak-hickory woodlands or was converted to agricultural fields and pastures. Today, more than 99.9 percent of the Pennyroyal Plain Prairie has been lost. Fortunately, an estimated 25,000 acres remain at Fort Campbell Army Base, but most of this is off-limits for study and is located in the Base’s impact zone. These prairies are home to numerous rare plant and animal species and were once home to bison and prairie chickens. Today, the few remaining remnants outside of Fort Campbell are barely discernible on the modern landscape, obliterated by 230+ years of land use changes, obscured by decades of fire suppression and competition from woody growth, and infestation by non-native species. Most are tucked away in some lonely corner of a pasture, woodland edge, or rural roadside. These privately owned remnants are steadily slipping away and many will be lost forever in coming years unless swift action is taken. As they slip into oblivion, we as a society will lose our ability to reimagine the once great prairies, hindering future conservation and restoration efforts.
The goal of this project is to (1) document, protect, and restore presently unprotected privately owned prairie remnants; (2) work with Roundstone Native Seed LLC. to create 60+ acres of all local-genotype high species richness prairie/oak savanna using Fort Campbell’s prairies as a seed source; (3) restore nearly 300 acres of degraded prairie lands in Kentucky and Tennessee; and (4) develop a system of fieldtrips, seminars, and workshops to help educate and interact with private landowners, land managers, and professionals in an attempt to assemble a diverse network of collaborators to find creative solutions to rebuilding the prairie piece by piece.
Though we are only in the first year of this project, 2015 has been a success. We have received pledges of support from more than a dozen agencies, non-profits, private landowners, businesses, and citizen-science groups. Roundstone Native Seed has donated all materials and labor needed to establish a 15-acre prairie at Dunbar Cave State Park in Clarksville, Tennessee. The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency has pledged it support to create prairies along a portion of Interstate 24 that crosses the Pennyroyal Plain in Montgomery County, Tennessee. Austin Peay State University, the Botanical Research Institute of Texas, and Roundstone Native Seed are gearing up to host the Mid-South Prairie Symposium May 25-27, 2016 in Clarksville, Tennessee, which will include invited speakers and local fieldtrips to Fort Campbell and Roundstone. We are confident that 2016 will be another successful year as we continue to pursue conservation of the Pennyroyal Plain Prairies.