The morning air hinted at the makings of a sweltering afternoon. But as hikers for a plant identification tour gathered at Rock Creek Station State Historical Park on July 12, the light breeze and the song of northern bobwhites, dickcissels, and field and grasshopper sparrows among the tall grasses and wildflowers made the atmosphere for the day’s adventures just about perfect.
Park superintendent Jeff Bargar welcomed more than two dozen visitors who would soon be hiking through prairies to get close to the landscape. With help from staff of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and Northern Prairies Land Trust, Bargar has begun to reinvigorate the native landscape by maintaining healthy bur oak woodlands and tallgrass prairie. He was eager for park visitors to see how the on-the-ground efforts were coming along.
Rock Creek Station State Historical Park and the adjacent Rock Glen Wildlife Management Area are natural jewels in a region that is otherwise dominated largely by crop fields. The area is part of the Sandstone Prairies Biologically Unique Landscape, more than 1,000 acres that are identified as a demonstration site for the Nebraska Natural Legacy Project Wildlife Action Plan.
Marian Langan, director of Audubon Nebraska, explained to the group how plant diversity creates a richer habitat enjoyed by many bird species and other wildlife. While hiking through the remnant prairies on a hot day, you can get a sense of emotions and extremes the first settlers must have experienced during their journey west along the Oregon Trail.
At one time, these prairies depended on and endured the blazes of intermittent fires, some started by lightning strikes, but mostly by those that Natives ignited for a multitude of reasons from hunting to signaling to warfare.
Grazing by wildlife such as bison and elk also provided disturbance to plants, thus preventing the prairies from being overgrown with trees and shrubs. The thatch that forms from abundant grasses has to be thinned and light allowed to reach the seedlings close to the earth for a prairie to thrive. Disturbance is a key factor in maintaining a healthy grassland ecosystem.
Management for high-quality prairie is a delicate dance of periodic disruption but not destruction, and no one routine fits the bill for conservation managers.
Gerry Steinauer, commission botanist and tour leader for the day, said: “One of the worst things you can do for prairies is leave them alone; prairies need to be managed.”
But something is being done right on the prairie at Rock Creek and Rock Glen, because it stands among the finest examples of large tallgrass prairie remnant in eastern Nebraska.
Visitors at Rock Creek and Rock Glen were able to feel the sandy soil in their hands while they studied warm-season grasses such as big bluestem, little bluestem, Indian grass and prairie dropseed. They touched and smelled sun-loving wildflowers such as downy gentian, stiff sunflower, leadplant, prairie petunia and pussytoes.
The prairie’s exceptional quality results from the dedicated and caring efforts of the area’s managers. Over the past decade at Rock Glen, for example, commission wildlife biologists Brad Seitz and Rick Souerdyke have undertaken extensive cedar clearing, conducted several prescribed burns and endured the never-ending task of trying to control invasive weeds.
Steinauer pointed to one prairie slope and said that 10 years ago it was a cedar thicket nearly devoid of prairie life. Now, biologists have returned the slope to a more historic state of lush prairie that is home to two uncommon orchid species. Prairie management efforts here have been supported and made possible principally with funds from the Nebraska Environmental Trust and the Nebraska Natural Legacy Project.
By standing in a prairie, observing its diversity and thinking about how it is connected to our past, we can appreciate the adventures of the pioneers and how Natives were the first caretakers of the land. Participants in the field tour learned not only about specific plants but also gained a renewed perspective on the conservation value of the native grasslands that are part of our natural history.
If you are interested in rehabilitating a native prairie, there are several resources and organizations that can help. Be wary of pre-packaged seed mixes labeled simply as “wildflowers,” because they may contain non-native and aggressive species. Plants and seed mixes from local sources are normally best for this region. A special thank you is due to the Nebraska Native Plant Society for organizing the summer botanical adventure that many hikers enjoyed at Rock Creek Station State Historical Park and Rock Glen Wildlife Management Area.