The BRIT Prairie
Why an urban prairie?
The purpose of the prairie on the BRIT Landscape is to provide the public a glimpse of the aesthetics of natural or native landscapes, reduce BRIT’s demand for water resources, be a valuable source for research into restoration of prairies in urban environments, and provide a model for habitat restoration and ecological connectivity. The culture of the region arose in the context of prairies. Our goal is to reconnect contemporary Texans with the natural heritage that served as the substrate for the developing cultural heritage that was and is the Fort Worth region. If successful, recreating this important native system will help us conserve the nested cultural and natural history of Texas.
Ecosystems throughout Texas are at risk because of massive habitat fragmentation, continued extreme drought conditions, changing management regimes, and an influx of nonnative invasive species. In particular, prairies originally covering the vast majority of land in North Central Texas continue to decline in the area with less than 1% of the original 20 million acres of prairieland remaining intact!
Where is our Prairie situated?
BRIT's prairie is located between the East Cross Timbers and the Fort Worth prairie vegetation zones. The Cross Timbers (including the West Cross Timbers) and Prairies occupies the region south of the Red River between the Blackland Prairie to the east, the Rolling Plains to the West, and the Llano Basin and Edwards Plateau to the southwest and south. As a vegetation study done by Dyksterhuis in 1946 explains, the Fort Worth prairie is recognized by its lack of significant tree cover. Dyksterhuis reported Little Bluestem grass (Schizachyrium scoparius) to be the overwhelming dominant plant of the area, constituting nearly two-thirds of the total plant cover. Side-oats grama, Indian grass, and tall dropseed are other common species that make up the Fort Worth prairie.
BRIT's Prairie History
The underlying geology and soil hint toward BRIT's prairie being part of the floodplain of the Trinity river (now channelized), with Native Americans moving through the site to access resources found in and along the river. Two known archaeological sites close to the prairie (within 1/4 to 1/2 mile) indicate a paucity of stone tools and pottery sherds, but earth ovens constructed for the purpose of cooking onions and certain Camassia species and grinding stones were present.
In more recent times, the Tarrant County Public Health Department building stood on the land that BRIT now occupies, with the prairie having previously been a parking lot. The parking lot, car traffic, and heavy machinery during construction compacted the soil significantly and offered opportunity for weedy plants to take hold.
In order to restore the land to the native prairie it once was, we first had to understand what a native prairie located in a river's floodplain might look like. With BRIT Research Associate Dr. Tony Burgess leading the way, we searched for other prairies with similar parameters including soil type to use as a template for restoration. It may not be obvious, but plants typically adapt to specific soil conditions, including the microbial communities within. Structure of the soil, texture, pH, and presence or absence of organic matter are all important features that denote a particular soil type. Given the abuse that BRIT's prairie had most recently endured, would it be possible to simply plant the seeds and have the prairie come alive?
This led Dr. Burgess and former Director of Research Dr. Will McClatchey to devise an experimental plan that included using live prairie soil and compost tea made from prairie soil. Several reference sites for extraction of appropriate soil were located and visited. A local ranch ultimately agreed to provide the soil in exchange for monitoring the effect of removal of the soil from their property. BRIT used this prairie soil within experimental plots as a means of introducing a native prairie seed bank and to establish healthy prairie microbial communities on site.
A research plan was developed to test the effectiveness of live soil amendments as a restoration tool. Three experimental plots were delineated in the prairie by curvilinear ropes and can still be seen today. Moving from east to west (right to left from inside the building), the first plot was amended with the living soil transplanted from the local ranch, the middle plot serves as a control (no treatment), and the third was amended with a compost tea made from living prairie soil. These plots are regularly analyzed for microbial activity, vegetation characterization, and other characteristics. Planted on top of this matrix was a mix of short-grass, tall-grass and wildflower species with a perimeter of short-grass and trees surrounding. The chosen species were dispersed over the prairie using hydro-mulching, a technique where seeds are mixed with water and mulch and sprayed over the prairie.
This project would not be possible without help from a number of partners and representatives including the Fort Worth Nature Center and Refuge, Native American Seed, and Texas Christian University. Thank you to all.