Although the restoration of the Willa Cather Memorial Prairie is partially funded by the Nebraska Environmental Trust, the Willa Cather Foundation greatly appreciates donations from private parties.
Project design and details
The project is designed to return the Willa Cather Memorial Prairie to its native state, and provide the means to allow for interested people to explore the Prairie and make use of it for ed ucational and recreational purposes. The design involves . . .
Salvaging natural springs
Restoration efforts include restoring five natural springs (three have been already been fenced). For ecological reasons, the Prairie is grazed. Cattle tend to gather around the natural springs and, in doing so, pack the soil around them, which blocks the flow of the springs. The springs will be surrounded with solar fencing to protect the immediate areas from the cattle. Solar fencing is chosen because of the sound environmental benefits.
Restoring the native prairie ecology
Eliminating noxious weeds and other non-native plants, including the remaining four to five thousand volunteer trees that infest the Prairie (over 6,000 have already been removed). The process involves . . .
- spot spraying noxious weeds, mostly milk thistle;
- controlled burnings of sections of the prairie to reduce weeds and allow native plants (which tend to survive fire) to come back; this will be in partnership with the Nature Conservancy;
- hand-removal of four to five thousand trees;
- removal of tree debris;
- reintroduction of plants such as Fremont's leather flower; will potentially benefit the long-term conservation of this species;
- fostering growth of a variety of plants that sustain the prairie, including numerous legumes (members of the pea family) that harbor nitrogen-fixing bacteria on their roots.
Cutting trails for human uses
Hiking trails are used for recreation, education, and maintenance of the land. The trails allow for access to the Prairie by humans without the accompanying destruction of large areas of the native grasses. No permanent trails will be established in order to protect and foster growth of plants and grasses.
The Willa Cather Memorial Prairie is vested with special plants including purple prairie clover and coneflower, big bluestem, side-oats grama, and more. It is our goal to someday provide signage that will educate visitors about the plants, often including interesting facts about how Native Americans used them for medicinal purposes. Plant species include, but are not limited to, big bluestem, little bluestem, Indian grass, switchgrass, side-oats grama, redtop, tall or rough dropseed, Canada wildrye, buffalo grass, and blue grama. Examples of the legumes observed are golden dalea, white prairie clover, purple prairie clover, round-headed lespedeza, deer vetch, leadplant, and scurf pea.
Prescribed Prairie Burn
The Willa Cather Foundation is proud to announce the completion of a prescribed burn on the Willa Cather Memorial Prairie. As part of an extensive restoration project funded by the Nebraska Environmental Trust, the Willa Cather Foundation has burned 200 acres of the 608-acre Willa Cather Memorial Prairie. Area volunteer fire departments facilitated the burn on April 22, 2012.
The intent of the fire is to encourage the growth of native grasses and flowers while suppressing the invasive brome grass, which begins to grown in early spring.
In one short week, new vegetation emerges in the burned area. Several weeks after this, cattle are introduced to the pasture in order to graze the new growth. This form of pyric-herbivory promotes heterogeneity across the landscape, which is required for diverse plant and wildlife communities. The
benefits of prescribed patch-burning include the reduction of noxious weeds, promotion of a diversity of native plant species, creation of diverse habitats for animal species, and increased nitrogen availability in the soil.
It is the intent of the Prairie Management Committe to use annual 200-acre burns along with rotational grazing as part of the long-term management strategy for the Prairie. This is especially significant because up until the 2009, 2010, and 2012 burns, the Prairie hadn’t seen a prescribed burn in over fifteen years.
In 2006, the Nature Conservancy deeded the Prairie to the Willa Cather Foundation in order to restore and conserve the rare native grasses, plant life, and wildlife of its delicate ecology. Already, the Willa Cather Foundation has removed over 8,000 non-native trees, fenced natural springs in order to secure their longevity and usefulness, cut hiking trails for visitors to use for education and recreation, added
signage to describe the wildflowers that exist on the land, and introduced rare plant species such as Fremont’s Clematis and Butterfly Milkweed.
The project is funded largely by the Nebraska Environmental Trust, who awarded the Willa Cather Foundation $18,129 to fund a three-year restoration effort. It is implemented through the close overseeing by our all-volunteer Prairie Management Committee, which is comprised of educators and scientists from the University of Nebraska at Kearney, Willa Cather Foundation Board members, as well as contributors from the Nature Conservancy, the County Extension Office, Resource Conservation and Development, and Red Cloud FFA and High School. This group meets four times annually to discuss programming, restoration, and general management of the Prairie. Much of the physical field work has been completed by Kevin Daehling, Prairie Curator, and Jim Fitzgibbon, a Cather Foundation Advisory Board member and retired high school science teacher, who spearheaded early efforts.
We are looking at volunteerism to enhance this position. The potential Master Naturalist program being set up by Nebraska Game and Parks and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension Office is a tremendous opportunity for our needs as both a restored prairie and eco-tourism site.
- Reduce grazing period to 5 months (from mid-April to mid-September) to foster controlled growth. This is essential to the future of the Prairie and its potential.
- Remove an additional 3,000 to 4,000 Red Cedar and 1,000 Chinese Elm and other non-native trees that inhibit growth of native species. After the removal of over 6,000 non-native trees since 2006, noticeable improvements have already been observed.
- Develop the Prairie as an educational resource. Cutting walking paths for education and recreation, as well as creating signage identifying plants and grasses for tourists and students will generate the opportunity for the Willa Cather Foundation to add the Prairie to our tours, which currently entertain and educate over 10,000+ visitors per year. We will also use the Prairie as part of our educational tours for K-12 students. As these efforts continue, other Prairie programming will be implemented.
- Install solar fencing for springs to secure their longevity and usefulness. This fencing will prevent cattle from packing the soil; it will ensure and enhance the current flowing conditions of the natural springs on the Prairie.
- Plant seeds to promote growth of indigenous plants and grasses as part of the effort to restore its ecosystem. Dr. Steve Rothenberger, Professor of Biology at UNK, has documented a variety of rare plant species on the Prairie that we hope to stabilize and propagate. These include Fendler's aster (Aster fendleri), known in Nebraska from only Webster and Franklin counties, and Fremont's evening primrose (Oenothera macrocarpa subsp. fremontii), known only from Webster, Franklin, and Red Willow counties in Nebraska. Both of these plants are listed as "rare" by the Nebraska Natural Heritage Program and are potential candidates for "threatened" status.
Another species that is very rare, and endemic to Webster County, is Fremont's clematis or Fremont's leather-flower (Clematis fremontii). It is known only from Franklin, Webster, and Nuckolls counties in Nebraska and 15 counties in north central Kansas. Fremont's leather-flower would be a good candidate to reintroduce to the prairie and would potentially benefit the long-term conservation of this species.
Currently, the Prairie Committee is attempting to grow additional Butterfly Milkweed on the Prairie, and Mark Janzen--a plant specialist with the NRCS Plan Material Program in Manhattan, Kansas--is working to propagate Fremont's Clematis.
Willa Cather Memorial Prairie Management Committee
- Kevin Daehling, Prairie Curator
- Ashley Olson, Willa Cather Foundation Prairie Management Coordinator
- Jim Fitzgibbon, Retired High School Science Teacher and Advisory Willa Cather Foundation Board Member
- Merle Illian, Resource Conservation and Development
- Duane Lienemann, County Extension Office
- Steve Rothenberger, Professor of Biology, University of Nebraska Kearney
- Chris Rundstrom, Nature Conservancy
- Joe Springer, Professor of Biology, University of Nebraska Kearney
- Joe Strickland, Red Cloud FFA and Red Cloud High School
- Krystal Hersh Zimmerman, Natural Resources Conservation Service