Debra Behrens is the Executive Director of the The Prairie Enthusiasts, a grassroots environmental organization that has 11 chapters in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Illinois. I recently talked with her about the expansion of its land holdings (a wonderful development in an age where we have to fight to preserve every last bit of the natural world from development), the importance of preserving prairies, the benefits of joining her organization, some great places to visit in Wisconsin and Illinois, and other topics.
Q. Your organization received some great news regarding the expansion of Mounds View Grassland preserve. Can you please fill in my readers about this news but first tell me about the preserve?
A. Mounds View Grasslands preserve is significant for its remnant prairie vegetation and associated rare insects and wildlife habitat, including the regal fritillary butterfly as well as many declining grassland bird species including bobolink, dickcissel, upland sandpiper, and Bell’s vireo. Mounds View Grasslands is open to the public. Our visitors enjoy photography, birdwatching, hiking, cross-country skiing, hunting, and fishing. We also host research and education programs.
The Hanley Farm prairie, together with other additions currently pending, will add about 350 acres to the current 570-acre preserve, making this site one of the largest contiguous restored and remnant prairies in the region. It has been identified as the highest priority for landscape-scale grassland protection and management in Wisconsin by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and represents one of the best opportunities in the Midwest to protect prairie remnants and area sensitive species.
We are very close now to our goal of raising just over $3 million in public and private support for the expansion of our Mounds View Grasslands preserve. This is thanks in part to tremendous news we received at the end of 2021 that we had been selected for an $895,000 grant from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to help us protect endangered species and habitat through the acquisition of the Hanley Farm.
Q. What type of restoration work has been done at the preserve, and what will be done at the new property addition?
A. Limited restoration work was begun in 2000, but most has been started since 2007, after permanent protection began to occur. In addition to planting prairie vegetation, land has been cleared of dense trees and brush that had invaded the site over the previous 60 years. Some restoration of the cold-water streams and wetlands has also been started.
We have already been collaborating with the family to care for prairie remnants on the Hanley Farm property. Once we have acquired the property, our management efforts will include clearing trees and shrubs, weed control, use of prescribed fire, and planting of prairie seeds. There will be much to do, and it will take many decades to even begin to approach what the original ecosystems were like on the expanded preserve.
Q. Can you tell me more about The Prairie Enthusiasts? How can one become a member, and what are some future properties that it would like to try to acquire and preserve?
A. We are a grassroots organization with 11 chapters in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Illinois. Our roots go back to the 1970s when some of our founding members started sharing what they were learning about these native ecosystems and collaborating with landowners to care for their remnant prairies. In addition to land protection, high-quality land management and education are very important to us. Everything we do is fueled by dedicated volunteers who are engaged in land stewardship, delivering education programming, and running the day-to-day operations of their chapters. Our members financially support our mission with gifts of personal significance. Those interested in getting involved should visit our website to find their local chapter and get connected.
The Prairie Enthusiasts focuses mainly on remnant fire-dependent ecosystems: prairies, oak savannas, oak woods, and other natural communities that have significant populations of native plants still intact. These are incredibly rare and are the highest priority for our protection. We also sometimes act to protect the land surrounding these remnants and will work to restore them as buffer zones.
Our chapters are the local networks of volunteers who provide care for these special places. They get to know landowners in their area and will recommend projects for protection based on their capacity and priorities. In Wisconsin, we are also an active partner in the Southwest Driftless Grasslands network—a collaboration between land trusts working to protect land in the region as habitat for grassland birds and other threatened and endangered species. Landowners interested in exploring options for protection with The Prairie Enthusiasts are encouraged to reach out to us early in their planning process to learn more.
Q. Why is it so important to preserve prairies?
A. Wide open prairies and oak savannas once covered the landscape of the Upper Midwest. Today only a tiny fraction of these fire-dependent ecosystems remains, harboring many specialized and endangered plants and animals in some of the rarest habitats on Earth. Populations of most grassland birds, ground nesting species dependent upon open landscapes, have been in steady and steep decline in North America for more than 50 years. They are now the most reduced and threatened group of birds in North America. Two dozen species in this guild inhabit the Midwest, and most are now of conservation concern. In addition, some 40 species of prairie plants, 80 species of prairie-specialist insects, and a dozen or so reptiles and small mammals dependent upon grassland and prairies have become rare or are declining in the Upper Midwest.
Q. What is one thing about prairies that people may be surprised to learn?
A. That they are dependent on fire and co-evolved with humans, who play a critical role now in restoring and caring for them. For those who think of the prairie as what they drive by on the freeway, it comes as a surprise to realize how beautiful and diverse remnant prairie can be—with sometimes 200 or more species on a given site.
Q. There is currently a furious grassroots campaign to save Bell Bowl Prairie in Rockford, Illinois, from being bulldozed to make way for an airport expansion. Do you have any advice for those who are working so hard to save this rare ecosystem?
A. We are gravely concerned about what is happening with Bell Bowl Prairie. It is a symptom of how disconnected we are from the land that it is not valued by those with decision-making authority in the so-called “Prairie State” of Illinois. My advice is for all of us: don’t give up hope. If your eyes have been opened to the importance of native remnant prairie, use your voice to speak up for it. How do you get people to care? Visit these places. Bring a friend and blow their minds with the beauty and diversity you will encounter. Better still, get connected and do some work on the land. See how it responds to your efforts. When you do you will discover a deep sense of connection, even reverence, for nature and our place in it. That is how we protect the future for increasingly rare, endangered prairies in our region.
Q. What are some of your favorite nature destinations to visit in southern Wisconsin?
A. I made frequent visits to our Mounds View Grasslands preserve this past year to meet with potential supporters of our expansion campaign. It is beautiful in every season and incredibly diverse with not only prairie, but also wetlands and streams. Last spring, I also had a memorable day at Eureka Maple Woods State Natural Area which has ephemerals in abundance. But oak savannas are my spiritual home, so I have to say Pleasant Valley Conservancy. All of The Prairie Enthusiasts sites that are open to the public are on our website and worth a visit.
Q. Can you tell me about the Illinois nature destinations that are managed by The Prairie Enthusiasts?
A. Journeys to Elmoville Prairie, Hanley Savanna, and Meinert Prairie give visitors a glimpse of the past and what our prairie ecosystems used to be. Meinert is a remnant hill prairie, and Elmoville is a small remnant prairie with a lot of diversity. Hanley Savanna is a 20+-year restoration with a mix of a dry sand prairie and a mesic prairie and oak savanna. The diversity of these properties with both plant and animal species is worth the trip.
Copyright (text, Debra Behrens holds the copyright to her interview)
Copyright (photos) as credited on photos
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ABOUT ANDREW MORKES
I have been a writer and editor for more than 25 years. I’m the founder of College & Career Press (2002); the editorial director of the CAM Report career newsletter and College Spotlight newsletter; the author and publisher of “The Morkes Report: College and Career Planning Trends” blog; and the author and publisher of Hot Health Care Careers: 30 Occupations With Fast Growth and Many New Job Openings; Nontraditional Careers for Women and Men: More Than 30 Great Jobs for Women and Men With Apprenticeships Through PhDs; They Teach That in College!?: A Resource Guide to More Than 100 Interesting College Majors, which was selected as one of the best books of the year by the library journal Voice of Youth Advocates; and other titles. They Teach That in College!? provides more information on environmental- and sustainability-related majors such as Ecotourism, Range Management, Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Built Environment, Sustainability Studies, and Sustainable Agriculture/Organic Farming. I’m also a member of the parent advisory board at my son’s school. Stories about my work have been published in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Daily Southtown, Beverly Review, and Practical Homeschooling.
In addition to these publications, I’ve written more than 40 books about careers for other publishing and media companies including Infobase (such as the venerable Encyclopedia of Careers & Vocational Guidance, the Vault Career Guide to Accounting, and many volumes in the Careers in Focus, Discovering Careers, What Can I Do Now?!, and Career Skills Library series) and Mason Crest (including those in the Careers in the Building Trades and Cool Careers in Science series).
My poetry has appeared in Cadence, Wisconsin Review, Poetry Motel, Strong Coffee, and Mid-America Review.
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