Landowner Prairie Restoration Spotlight – Carolyn and Terry Schwab

Terry and Carolyn Schwab live on 109 acres in Eastern Harvey County affectionately known by a former neighbor as the “Foothills to the Flint Hills.” While much of the county land has been converted to cropland over the last century, the Schwab property has remained in remnant prairie.

We received a grant in 2004 to identify and study more than 100 prairie remnants in South Central Kansas and to collect seed for our 18-acre Prairie Window Project prairie reconstruction project on-site at Dyck Arboretum. Until 2010, this work helped us develop a prairie landowner network through which we consulted with landowners and assisted them with their prairie management needs. It was during these years that I had the pleasure of first meeting the Schwabs. Ever since I have enjoyed observing the dedication they bring to being prairie restorationists and natural area enthusiasts.

Terry and Carolyn Schwab and the property they manage (2007)

Increasing Wildlife Diversity

The property was a moderately overgrazed cattle pasture when they acquired it in 1993. The Schwabs’ main goal as land stewards was to increase wildlife diversity through improved habitat and enhance their avid hobbies of bird-watching and fishing.

The remnant prairie and emergent wetland above and around the ponds on their land can consist of hundreds of species of grasses, wildflowers, sedges, and shrubs. High plant diversity translates to high wildlife diversity. Maintaining diverse herbaceous vegetation also serves as a good surface water filter that improves pond health. Terry and Carolyn knew that without grazing or other forms of grassland management, invasion of a handful of tree species (including nonnative species) would create a dense, and comparatively lifeless, forest canopy within decades. Plant species diversity would decrease and wildlife habitat would suffer. They needed to become prairie restoration land stewards.

Dotted gayfeather (Liatris punctata) (Photo by Carolyn Schwab)

Vegetation Management

Controlling woody species and removing nonnative wildflowers became top priorities for the Schwabs in their quest to improve wildlife habitat on their property. Their initial efforts were extensive and laborious. They cut Osage orange and eastern red cedar trees and manually dug out musk thistle. To maintain water levels in the ponds, they repaired holes in the dams and removed trees whose roots can compromise dam life.

Numerous small trees invading in prescribed burning units A and B (2002 aerial photography)
Comparison with the previous photo shows that mechanical removal and prescribed burning have reduced tree cover over a six-year period, especially in units A and B (2008 aerial photography)

They were able to open up the upland areas where they had successfully removed mature trees and restore contiguous areas of grass and wildflower-dominated prairie. In these areas, the Schwabs implemented a regular rotation of mowing and prescribed burning to control any further invasion of woody plants. They networked with a local fire department to help them do this. They found mowing and burning to be much less labor-intensive than manual tree removal and effective tools for long term tree management.

Management Unit B, post-burn in 2009 (Photo by Carolyn Schwab)

Carolyn and Terry have made great improvements in restoring the prairie and emergent wetlands with tree management, but they know that they cannot rest on their laurels. Mature, seed-producing trees on their land and neighboring properties make keeping up with tree invasion a continual challenge. In addition to maintaining a routine of mowing and burning, they continue to cut and treat a number of invading tree species including honey locust, Bradford pear, Osage orange, Siberian elm, eastern red cedar, and the shrub Japanese honeysuckle. They are also on the lookout for the highly invasive, noxious weed sericea lespedeza which is becoming increasingly present in the area.

Conducting a prescribed burn on Unit C in 2010

Wildlife Monitoring

Carolyn invests a great deal of time monitoring and reporting on the biodiversity observed on their property. Daily walks to document bird populations, track phenology of flowering plants, and photograph butterflies are all part of what she sees as being an informed land steward.

Regal fritillary butterflies are dependent on habitat including diverse, large tracts of prairie. Even though the Schwabs have been improving the habitat of their prairie, regal fritillary numbers seem to be declining in recent years on a landscape scale. Carolyn has been planting nectar plants like butterfly milkweed and regal fritillary host plants (prairie violets) in the landscaping around her house to try and further support regal fritillary numbers.

This 2013 regal fritillary on butterfly milkweed (a yellow native landscaping variety near house) was the last one that Carolyn has seen on her property (Photo by Carolyn Schwab)

Carolyn is a top-notch birder. According to the Kansas Bird Listserv Database, a total of 329 species of birds have ever been documented as observed in Harvey County. Carolyn has seen more of these species (270) than anybody. And with easy access to 109 acres of prairie, wetland, woodland, and open water habitat, Carolyn has seen a whopping 232 of these species on her property!

A favorite experience of hers was witnessing a rare event on October 27, 2010. Eastern Harvey County is well east of the main sandhill crane migration flyway and seeing cranes there is not common. That night, however, the Schwabs observed 200+ sandhill cranes settle in for the night at their pond and enjoyed hearing their calls through the night. The cranes took off the next morning, but left behind a lasting memory for Carolyn.

Return of Butterfly Milkweed

The Schwab prairie restoration efforts are not only increasing the presence of grassland bird populations, but plant diversity as well. For years, they have not seen any butterfly milkweed on their property. But during the growing season of 2020, Carolyn reports that she has seen 20 plants.

Butterfly milkweed (Photo by Carolyn Schwab)

Protection for the Future

The Schwabs are considering registering their property with the Kansas Land Trust to protect this native prairie in perpetuity. By establishing a conservation easement on the property, Terry and Carolyn would be establishing guidelines for future landowners to follow that would help protect the prairie, watershed, and the diversity of species therein.

Thank you, Carolyn and Terry for your important prairie restoration land stewardship and for being willing to share your story.

A white-tailed deer doe and two fawns sheltering on one of the Schwab pond islands (Photo by Carolyn Schwab)

Be an Advocate for the Prairie

At Dyck Arboretum, we focus a lot of our energy on spreading knowledge and appreciation for the prairie. We love Kansas’s natural landscape and we are alarmed by how little native prairie is left intact. The prairie needs more advocates – people who will stand up for its preservation and defend its value to native wildlife and community health. Most of our direct efforts target land owners – people who can plant native prairie gardens and landscapes at their home or school. But these are not the only people who can make a difference! Here are a few ways you can be a prairie advocate even if you aren’t able to plant a prairie of your own:

Community Involvement

I enjoy attending my local city council meetings to keep tabs on what is happening in the community, especially in regards to environmental issues. Most city council meetings have a citizen comment session at the beginning or end of every meeting. This is the perfect platform to express your thoughts on community green spaces, roadside prairie preservation and responsible neighborhood development. Letting your local government know you want to see more natural prairie in and around the city could inspire big changes!

Encouraging your city to adopt sustainable land management policies can create pollinator habitat, help clean stormwater run off, absorb carbon pollution from the air, and much more! Carpenter Bee on Purple Prairie Clover (Dalea Purpurea)

Volunteerism

We say it all the time, but it deserves repeating — Dyck Arboretum couldn’t do what we do without volunteers. If you are passionate about prairie preservation and live in the area, consider volunteering for us! Here at the Arb, volunteers do everything from mow lawns and pull weeds to answer phones and process memberships. When you give your time to an organization, you free up the staff to focus on the heart of its mission and widen its impact. Search VolunteerKansas.org to find a place near you to volunteer your time and advocate for native landscaping, environmental education or sustainable agriculture.

Volunteers often help out on the grounds, planting new flower beds and maintaining old ones. They keep the Arboretum looking beautifully managed!

Membership

Lastly, if you don’t have lots of time in your schedule to attend community meetings or volunteer somewhere, don’t fret. The simple purchase of a membership to an organization you support can make a big difference. The Dyck Arboretum, and other non-profit organizations like us, depend on memberships as a large portion of our budget. Membership gifts also support our programming and events. We use membership numbers to gauge whether our message resonates with the public. It is always so encouraging to see that number grow, one membership at a time! Becoming a member tells us that you support the work we are doing and that you want us to keep it going. If that is how you feel about Dyck Arboretum, become a member and a prairie advocate here.

Staff and members get to know each other at the annual Summer Soiree, an evening of fine food and entertainment.






A Land Pilgrimage to the Home of Aldo Leopold

Canopy with pines planted by the Leopold family near the Shack

A pilgrimage is defined as a journey to a shrine of importance to a person’s beliefs and faith. A recent late-June trip to the Aldo Leopold Foundation in Baraboo, WI and the UW-Madison Campus and Arboretum in Madison, WI, was a land pilgrimage for me indeed.

The trip was spurred by the opportunity to give a couple of presentations at the Building A Land Ethic Conference at the Leopold Foundation. Aldo Leopold’s famous “land ethic” concept basically stated that people and land are of similar importance in a vibrant community.  The conference carried this theme consistently throughout its programming and especially focused on how we should seek to build bonds that heal our current urban-rural divide.

Leopold Foundation education buildings and reconstructed prairie

LEED certified buildings with solar panels and rain water collection aquaducts moving water to a rain garden

Meaningful symbolic artwork for the conference was a patchwork quilt, where seemingly useless fragments and pieces are bound together to form a rich, vibrant and very useful network.

2017 Building A Land Ethic Conference theme artwork

Stimulating lectures on land, water, art, and food, mini workshops about land ethic leadership, field trips to the Shack, and networking opportunities with people from around the world were all important parts of the conference.

“The Shack”, a dilapidated chicken coop turned into a weekend and summer getaway along the Wisconsin River in the 1930s and 40s is a centerpiece of the Leopold Foundation grounds.

The Leopold Shack: Except for some chimney repair, the Shack exists nearly as it did when Aldo Leopold died in 1948.

Aldo Leopold and his family camped, hunted, fished, played, cut wood, grew food, planted trees, and restored prairie at the Shack for more than a decade.

One of two saws likely used to cut “The Good Oak” (a chapter in A Sand County Almanac)

Aldo’s observations and writings were compiled into the book A Sand County Almanac and published in 1949, a year after Aldo died of a heart attack fighting a wildfire near the Shack. The Shack and grounds are now a National Historic Landmark and the eloquently written book featuring the Land Ethic has become one of the most famous pieces of literature in the conservation movement.

Memorial site where Aldo Leopold died fighting a wild fire

Family experiences at the Shack must have been foundational for Aldo’s five kids, because they all went on to earn advanced degrees and pursue careers related to ecology and conservation. Estella Leopold, now 90 years old and the only living Leopold child, recently wrote Stories from the Shack, a delightfully detailed set of memories from her childhood days along the Wisconsin River.

Estella Leopold recounts in her book many childhood memories around the construction and enjoyment of this fire place in the Shack.

For most of the people attending this 2017 conference (the majority were from outside of WI), the teachings of Leopold and the lessons from A Sand County Almanac have been profound. I studied botany and ecological restoration at UW-Madison 20 years ago and Aldo’s words were important in the development of my ideals, vocational directions, and views of how humans should care for the land. After reading A Sand County Almanac again this spring and just finishing Estella’s new book, I was eager to return to and soak up the stories and landmarks of the Shack again a couple of decades later.

The world’s second oldest reconstructed prairie – one of many Leopold Family labors of love undertaken while at the Shack

Aldo Leopold taught wildlife management in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at UW-Madison, the same college where I did my graduate work a half century later. A significant part of my botany, ecology, and plant propagation studies as well as work internships happened at the UW-Madison Arboretum where Leopold was the first research director. After the conference, I rounded out my Wisconsin pilgrimage with a quick trip to Madison to walk through campus, hike the prairies, savannas and woodlands at the UW-Arb, and spend a bit of time visiting old friends.

Curtis Prairie, the world’s oldest reconstructed prairie, at UW-Madison Arboretum

White wild indigo in Greene Prairie at UW-Madison Arboretum

Marsh milkweed and Ohio spiderwort in Greene Prairie at UW-Madison Arboretum

Eagle Heights Gardens near UW-Madison Campus – where Sara and I tended our first vegetable gardens

The iconic UW-Madison Terrace along Lake Mendota, one of the best places to enjoy Wisconsin’s finest food and drink offerings

To finish this story, I got back to Kansas just in time to join our Dyck Arboretum staff in hosting Aldo Leopold Biographer, Curt Meine, as our Summer Soirée speaker. Curt’s message about how Leopold’s land ethic ideals are fitting in Kansas today more than ever was a nice wrap-up to our year of events celebrating our 35th anniversary. He finished his talk with the following quote:

“I have purposely presented the land ethic as a product of social evolution because nothing so important as an ethic is ever ‘written’… It evolves in the minds of a thinking community.” The Land Ethic, A Sand County Almanac.

After this pilgrimage journey, now more than ever I look forward to carrying on this land ethic conversation with our local and wider thinking community.

Double rainbow in Madison. What I have found at the base of this rainbow is way more valuable than a pot of gold.






The Prairie Paradox

“Reversing deforestation is complicated; planting a tree is simple.”

– Martin O’ Malley, Former Governor of Maryland and Mayor of Baltimore.

When I first read this saying, I automatically changed it in my mind.  I changed it to “reversing prairie degradation and loss is complicated; planting a wildflower is simple“.  Granted, we appreciate trees in Kansas. But more than trees, we need to plant prairie to reverse the losses to our signature landscape.  Only one percent of the original prairie remains—99 percent of prairies are gone.  The rich prairie land is now used to produce crops and raise livestock.  Only a few pockets of prairie still survive in their original form, including the Flint Hills.

I grew up on a farm and learned so much from farm life.  I know the value of the land.  I understand how hard it is to eke out a living working the land.  There is a richness of the soil precisely because it was once prairie.  Conservation of the soil is vital to the success of any farm.  Stewardship of the land is understood.  We can’t take the land away from the farmers and landowners, but we also can’t let the prairie disappear forever either.  We need the food that this land produces and we need to save this almost extinct ecosystem.  It is complicated on so many levels.

Big Bluestem growing in the Prairie Window Project

Big Bluestem growing in the Prairie Window Project

I believe the solution to the prairie paradox is to allow for and encourage individuals to make small steps, such as choosing to plant native wildflowers and grasses in our own yards and landscapes.  Just like remnant prairies that dot the landscape, our small gardens can have an impact.  This impact can be multiplied with each new wildflower and each new garden that is established.  By choosing to establish just a few native plants, we can begin the slow process of reclamation, rejuvenation and renewal of this lost landscape.  Large expanses of prairie are never coming back, but a patchwork landscape of our own native plants seems doable.

Larger prairie restorations are a challenge.  They can take years to get established and even then the results will almost always fall short of the original prairie.  I can remember looking at a prairie restoration in Wisconsin that had been seeded over 20 years earlier.  The guide noted that the prairie had just started looking like the original prairie.  It took that long to develop into something that resembled a true prairie.  I am not saying that we shouldn’t plant new prairie.  If anything, we should start now so the transformation can begin.  A “new prairie” does not develop overnight. It takes time and is complicated by so many different factors.  We should have realistic expectations and be patient.

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Burning the Prairie Window Project-Spring 2016

Even our Prairie Window Project is continuing to mature.  It is now nearly 10 years old.  We have worked hard to keep the trees and yellow sweet clover out of the prairie.  We planted the prairie with good diversity of wildflowers and grasses but even that is no guarantee of success.  The impact of farming on the land, weed competition with new native seedlings, management regiments and many other influences can have detrimental effects on a prairie reconstruction slowing the transformation.  These examples demonstrate how complicated it can be to change a farm field to a prairie.  It is costly, time consuming and unpredictable.

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Earth Partnership for Schools Native Planting

We should keep planting native plants because it is the right thing to do. Plant a prairie if you can.  Reclaim a prairie if you can.  The prairie ecosystem, unique to North America, is an important part of our natural heritage.  Native pollinators need these plants for their survival.  Native wildflowers and grasses create habitat for wildlife.  We should be aware of the many benefits of native plants.  Obviously, native plants are worth the effort.  Remember, planting a wildflower is simple –why not start today?

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This is a landscape worth saving!