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A Kansas Suburb Is Planting A Prairie, But It May Take Decades For It To Pass As Native

Matt Garrett
This rosinweed plant is part of a 60-acre prairie restoration at Big Bull Creek Park in Johnson County. It was planted three years ago.

In a few years, Kansas Citians will be able to wander 500 acres of tallgrass prairie close to home. A Johnson County park is in the midst of the area’s largest prairie restoration project.

One of the first things you see at the entrance to Big Bull Creek Park in Johnson County, Kansas, is a small, beautifully curated patch of prairie surrounded by cement.

It looks merely decorative, but it’s not. This and the nearby children's playground, where the slides are built into the hill of the landscape are meant to pique your interest, luring you into exploring the nearby prairie.

"We’re trying to get folks to subconsciously get comfortable with nature and go from the garden to the playscape and then out into the actual wild area,” says Matt Garrett, a field biologist for the Johnson County Park and Recreation District.

Garrett says if you think of the different levels of nature in the 2,060 acres at Big Bull Creek like a restaurant’s spiciness scale, these areas would be considered mild.

“This would be level-one nature, where you’re getting the butterflies and you’re hearing the birds, but you’re standing on mulch,” says Garrett.

Big Bull Creek Park in Johnson County.
Mackenzie Martin
KCUR 89.3
Big Bull Creek Park between Edgerton and Gardner has only been open to the public since 2018. It's the largest park in the Johnson County Park and Recreation District system.

If you cross a nearby bridge though, you'll find yourself in wild, unfiltered prairie. Or, at least the start of what will become that one day.

Johnson County recently embarked on an ambitious prairie restoration project. In the last four years, 300 acres of soybean fields have been converted to tallgrass prairie at Big Bull Creek Park in Edgerton, Kansas.

The eventual project will feature 500 acres of prairie, which is a big deal considering most prairie restorations are only a few acres big. It's the biggest restoration project of its kind in the Kansas City area.

When the county first purchased the land 20 years ago, it just sat around. It could have been turned into any number of things. But residents wanted wild habitat, and in this part of the country, that means prairie.

“People didn’t want to see ball fields. And they didn’t want to see large development. They wanted to see it as natural as possible," says Garrett.

It’s now five years into a 10-year project, and it’s been arduous work. It’ll be decades before the ecosystem even comes close to that of a native prairie.

“It’s a very young science to plant new prairie," says Garrett. “Some of the earliest prairie restorations in America are just from the ’40s and ’50s, and we’re still learning information from those."

Garrett isn’t alone here, though. Many organizations are helping out.

Volunteers for Kansas City WildLands spent the last year gathering rare prairie seed with their bare hands in Miami county.

“A lot of our volunteers are pretty seriously addicted to seed collection,” says program manager Linda Lehrbaum. “It’s getting out into these wild places and just focusing on it. Everything else starts to melt away.”

The seed team was an immense help, considering how expensive prairie seed is. Last year, volunteers gathered 159 species, the estimated value of which is approximately $106,000.

"We joke that it's more expensive than drugs per ounce," says Matt Garrett.

Some of the seed they found isn’t even available commercially.

Big Bull Creek Park in Johnson County
Mackenzie Martin
KCUR 89.3
Four years ago, this 70-acre tallgrass prairie at Big Bull Creek Park was all soybean fields. Pictured here is Linda Lehrbaum, Matt Garrett and Jacob Canyon.

Not to mention, the more seed varieties you have, the better the future biodiversity of the prairie. That’s good for the pollinators and even the cleanliness of nearby Hillsdale Lake.

“Not only are we helping bees and endangered birds," says Matt Garrett. "But there's a very human aspect of trying to clean water for a larger growing area of the Kansas City area that depend on this lake for their drinking water.”

To the untrained eye, a young prairie looks complete in certain areas. You can see tall grass, flowers and grassland birds. The only thing missing is the complexity of species you'd find in a native prairie.

But even with all the effort Garrett and his team are putting in, they still don’t know if that diversity will ever come.

“In the scale of a prairie, we don’t know this worked for a hundred years," says Matt Garrett. “You cannot have a short attention span and plant prairie."

It’ll be four years before some of these plants bloom for the first time. That’s about when Garrett will know if his hard work has paid off, and if it’s worth showing it off to other ecologists.

Whether it’s something happening right now or something that happened 100 years ago, some stories don’t fit in the short few minutes of a newscast. As a podcast producer at KCUR, I help investigate questions and local curiosities in a way that brings listeners along for adventures with plot twists and thought-provoking ideas. Sometimes there isn’t an easy answer in the end – but my hope is that we all leave with a greater understanding of the city we live in. Reach me at mackenzie@kcur.org.
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