Bikeway scene of prairie restoration

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Catchfly salmon plant along Prairie Grass Trail

The Xenia to London portion of the Ohio to Erie Trail was named the Prairie Grass Trail because it traverses an area that used to be a mosaic of forests and prairies in pre-settlement days.

However, with the invention of the steel plow in 1803, settlers were able to farm the sticky prairie sod and now much of this land is developed. Remnants of the original prairies can still be found where plowing could not occur, such as in pioneer cemeteries, railroad right-of-ways, and fence rows. Therefore, hikers and bikers on the Prairie Grass Trail, which was constructed on the railway abandoned in the 1980s, can enjoy glimpses of the past by seeing the variety of prairie plants and animal species that have persisted. 

These prairie plants are in danger of being lost. While the railroad was active, frequent fires would keep out trees. With the departure of the railroad and the associated fires, invasive weed species such as garlic mustard, poison hemlock, and shrub honeysuckle are starting to take over. Management efforts, such as fire and brush clearing, are necessary to stave off the encroachment of trees and invasive shrubs.

The re-opening of potential prairie remnant habitats along the Prairie Grass Trail began in the winter of 2005 under the leadership of Wayne Roberts, president of the Friends of the Madison County Parks and Trails (FMCPT), with the advisement of Jack McDowell, an expert in prairie restoration, part-time land management coordinator at Columbus Metro Parks, and an FMCPT board member.

Areas along the trail were cleared of shrubs and trees with clippers and chainsaws, revealing the prairie plants.

The next step was to maintain the openings through the use of fire. There is only a small window of opportunity to safely burn in the spring to control weeds and revitalize the soil for growth.

Over the last three years, spring rains prevented attempts to burn, and the cleared areas were threatened again by re-growth of woody vegetation.

At the same time, John Silvius, professor of biology at Cedarville University, and two students, Jessicah Zehring and Tara Lawler, were conducting a survey of land-owner attitudes toward the newly constructed bikeway. This study afforded an opportunity for Silvius to meet Roberts and McDowell and other individuals who possessed a land conservation ethic, which included respect for the biodiversity of the Prairie Grass Trail.

One such landowner was James Mitchell, former Union County Soil and Water Conservation District supervisor, who, along with his son, Jay, planted 57 acres of erodible cropland into the Conservation Reserve Environmental Program (CREP). This land was sown in prairie grasses and now serves as a buffer from agricultural chemicals around the bikeway prairie remnants and Paint Creek. The Madison Soil and Water Conservation District and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, provided technical and financial assistance.

The meetings between prairie restorers, McDowell and Silvius, soil conservationist and farmer, Mitchell, and FMCPT president, Roberts, resulted in another opportunity of a collaborative effort. 

In May, Mitchell, Silvius, and Brittany North, one of Silvius’ research students at Cedarville University, established study plots along the bikeway to test several methods of clearing and control of trees (mulberry and honeylocust), invasive shrubs (honeysuckle), and herbs (poison hemlock and garlic mustard).

Mitchell provided the equipment and operation of it for tree and shrub removal as required by the experimental design formed between Silvius and McDowell. Prairie remnant habitats included in the experiment represent areas that have been completely overgrown by trees and shrubs, now cleared to allow sunlight penetration, as well as areas that were partly over-grown from the 2005 clearing effort. The researchers hope that the removal of the woody vegetation will stimulate re-growth of prairie species from the seed bank.

Whether or not new prairie species are released from dormancy, one accomplishment is the cooperative effort between the local landowner, local biologists, park district, and the soil and water conservation district that may serve as a model for restoration and maintenance of other segments along the Prairie Grass Trail.

Landowners along the bike trail inter-ested in prairie protection or restoration are encouraged to contact John Silvius at 937-215-2024 or the Madison Soil and Water Conservation District at 740-852-4004.

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