Grassland Restoration Practitioners Gather at Arboretum for Annual Workshop

Attendees of the workshop visit the Aldo Leopold Foundation

Workshop attendees visit the Aldo Leopold Founation. Photo: Steve Swensen, Aldo Leopold Foundation

On August 20 and 21, the Arboretum hosted the Grassland Restoration Network (GRN) annual workshop. Begun in 2003 by The Nature Conservancy and other partners, the GRN is a loose network of Midwest and Great Plains professionals and landowners who create, manage, and study high-diversity prairie restorations. One-hundred twenty attendees travelled here from ten states—the farthest being Texas. More than fifty non-government organizations, government agencies, and private companies were represented.

The goal of the annual workshop is to provide an opportunity for people to gather and discuss restoration work, share observations, explore issues, and learn from the experiences of others. The workshop is hosted in a different location each year so attendees can visit a broad range of sites and hear about different management challenges and techniques. Past workshops have been held at places such as Konza Prairie in Kansas (2017), Nachusa Grasslands in Illinois (2014), Kankakee Sands in Indiana (2011), and the Arboretum (2008).

Each day consisted of formal presentations in the morning and field trips in the afternoon. And since creating new connections and maintaining old ones are important for staying informed and energized, time was set aside each day for networking and other informal conversations among colleagues.

The first day’s presentations, given by Arboretum staff, focused on Arboretum research and restoration projects as well as insect conservation. On the second day, invited speakers covered topics ranging from long-term changes in prairie remnant plant species composition, the cost-effectiveness of different seed mix designs, and how conservation professionals can better communicate stories to engage general audiences.

Michael Hansen leads workshop attendees into Curtis Praire
Michael Hansen leads workshop attendees into Curtis Prairie

Afternoon field trips afforded attendees the opportunity to visit three different sites, one on the first day and two on the second. Tours visited sites in Dane, Columbia, Iowa, Jefferson, and Sauk counties. The Arboretum’s Curtis and Greene prairies were an option on the second day. At Madison Audubon Society’s Faville Grove Sanctuary and The Prairie Enthusiasts’ Mounds View Grassland, attendees compared many types of prairie plantings established over the years while the site managers talked about techniques, successes, failures, and lessons learned. At the Aldo Leopold Foundation and the University of Wisconsin’s Arlington Research Station, attendees saw the results of various experiments and discussed the implications with researchers.

It was great having the GRN workshop here at the Arboretum. I always find these gatherings inspiring, being surrounded by others devoted to the principles and practice of restoration and conservation who come from different parts of the prairie region but are ultimately all on the same team and can share in each other’s lessons, successes, and failures.

Those of us in prairie management, and land management in general, face many challenges that sometimes seem impossible to overcome. But there are many reasons to be hopeful. Chris Helzer of the Nebraska chapter of The Nature Conservancy wrote a nice blog post about the workshop and what makes him optimistic.

I agree with Chris about the prairie’s resilience and the positive impacts of our work. I also feel optimistic when reflecting on all the great people at the workshop, and in the restoration field, dedicated to the cause. We reached our capacity with 120 attendees, and had another 35 people on our wait list who unfortunately were unable to attend. Having worked in this field for almost 20 years, and now officially middle-aged, I was pleased to see many younger people in attendance—our prairies’ futures are in good hands. More than a third of the total audience, and roughly half the presenters, were female—very encouraging for a profession that has been predominantly male. Human diversity is also good for prairies!

However, we also acknowledge the lack of racial diversity in our field, and as we go forward, creating that change will be vital for both equitable communities and healthier landscapes. The workshop was a good reminder that we still have a lot of work to do both ecologically and socially, but also that we have made a lot of progress and there are many good people committed to making more.

—Michael Hansen, land care manager