Resurrecting the Illinois prairie

    Published Online Apr 2, 2000
    News-Gazette Staff Writer

    URBANA - Henry Barnhart died in January leaving a rich legacy - his children, his contributions to the community and a patch of prairie at his farm southeast of Urbana.
    The Champaign County Soil and Water Conservation District plans to expand the existing prairie patch - 23 acres carefully restored by Barnhart 's son, Donald - into an 80-acre landmark where people can go to see what the Illinois countryside looked like before settlers tamed it.
    When the work is completed, which will likely take 10 to 15 years, planners say the plot will be one of a handful of authentic, pre-settlement prairie s in the state, perhaps the largest downstate.
    "It's very unusual to have a prairie this large," said Kenneth Kesler, head of the conservation district.
    "Anyone can seed grasses with a seeder," said Renee Clauss, district conservationist. "You find large restored prairie s only in the Chicago area."
    Growth in the 23-acre field on Old Church Road east of Urbana is golden now, waiting for warmer weather to transform it. By summer, green grasses and multicolored flowers will fill the field, says Brett Barnhart , who lives there.
    "It's very beautiful," Barnhart said. "There are a lot of flowers in the spring, summer and fall. There are birds and lots of pheasants and even deer and coyote. You can hear them yip, yip, yipping. It's attractive and easy to maintain."
    His family has farmed the land since the early 1900s, he said. Brett Barnhart said his brother, "a die-hard conservationist," got the project started years ago.
    "Harry Barnhart was the catalyst," Clauss said. "Don was the dreamer. He restored the existing prairie , and the rest fell into place."
    Conservation district officials have been working with the Barnhart land for more than 20 years, since Mr. Barnhart took it out of production and enrolled it in the federal Conservation Reserve Program.
    The rolling 23 acres transformed by Don Barnhart stayed in the program until three years ago when the government turned it down. Then Clauss went to work looking for grants to support the district's work with Barnhart s in progress there.
    Mr. Barnhart , the district and family members were in the process of forging the agreement to expand the original tract to 80 acres, converting 57 acres now farmed to prairie , when Mr. Barnhart died.
    The Illinois Department of Natural Resources Conservation 2000 program is funding the initial expansion work.
    "We're going to harvest seed from the existing prairie acres and plant it," Clauss said. "We plan to start the restoration next year because we missed the seed window this year."
    She said eventually, an authentic log cabin dating from 1854 will be reconstructed on the site.
    "The family acquired it from the city of Urbana, and it's in storage," Clauss said. "We'll reassemble it."
    The district will plant grasses like Indian, big blue-stem, little blue-stem, switchgrass and porcupine grass and many other species, including coneflowers, wild quinine, rattlesnake master and false white indigo.
    Don Barnhart , interviewed by e-mail because he's completing a doctorate in England, said he also envisions the expanded prairie being a "living ark" for local prairie genetics.
    When he first planted the 23-acre portion with the help of environmentalist David Monk in the 1980s, he said, he asked Monk for some seed and collected others from local roadsides and railroad tracks.
    "At the same time, we were planting the prairie on our farm, we also helped others plant prairie s on their farms," Don Barnhart said. "Each year, we'd harvest seeds and give them to people."
Barnhart said he learned a lot about prairie plant identification and seed preservation from his work there.
    He will return home soon to work on the new project, to be called the Barnhart -Grove Prairie for the two ancestral families that farmed the land.
    "One day, I hope we can create a nature corridor between this new prairie and the existing Meadowbrook Park Prairie since they are less than two miles apart and most of the intervening land is owned and farmed by the University of Illinois," Don Barnhart said of his long-range vision.
    Clauss said conservation officials also take a long-range approach to the project.
    "It's an investment in the future," she said.

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