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Curtis Prairie Restoration

On the grounds of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum is Curtis Prairie. Curtis Prairie holds the unique title of being the world’s first prairie restoration. In the late 1920’s the university decided to take on an experiment in hopes of emulating a Midwest prairie for research and display. The history of this project is very important as this was the first prairie restoration and many of the techniques that we use today were learned here.

The first deliberate attempt to reconstruct an ecosystem began in 1933. The University acquired two farms West of the campus for the future arboretum and a 60-acre prairie site was chosen. The original prairie was broken there in 1836 and there were no signs of that prairie remaining. The idea was sprouted from wisconsin botanist Norman Fassett. In 1929  Dr. Theodore Sperry was chosen to direct the effort with the supervision of  Aldo Leopold and William Longenecker. Around 200 recruits from the Civil Conservation Corp (CCC) were used to execute three different types of planting. One, was collecting seed from prairie remnants along the Wisconsin River and inserting them into the ground. Another was to grow small seedlings in a nursery setting and plant them individually. The last, and most intensive, was to actually dig up prairie sod from remaining prairies and lay it in place. The results varied greatly as the seasonal timing was not known to be as important as it is today. In 1938, the first prairie plants that survived were blooming on the site. Between 1941 and 1946 John Curtis took over and began focusing on controlled burning in order to control invasive weeds which served to be very useful. He also began to study the effects of seed stratification from seed the he was collecting. Throughout his reign as Arboretum director Curtis began emphasizing the timings of the controlled burns and observed the differences. He continued with his prairie management experiments until his death in 1961. In 1962, the prairie was officially named Curtis Prairie in his honor. The experiments have never stopped. Today, soil scientists are using this site to determine weather soils can return to the pre-settlement health after the return of a prairie. So far the answer is, yes. Many invasive species control studies are carried out here as well studies on hydrology shifts and the creation of buffer zones.  

In the 1930’s a newspaper reporter asked Dr. Theodore Sperry how long it would take to complete the restoration, he replied “Roughly a thousand years.” I guess that still holds true. Today, this prairie restoration serves as a testament to the rewards of ecological restoration as a science. Thankfully, we have learned a lot since then and the experimental risks have been greatly reduced, but will never be eliminated. This experiment also reflects the University of Wisconsin and the entire state, as proof of its proggressiveness and its commitment to the environment.

http://uwarboretum.org/about/communities_collections/  UW Arboretum Site

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