Celebrating 30 Years of Ecosystem Restoration

on March 3, 2017

As we gather to celebrate 30 years of Taylor Creek Restoration Nurseries, our Founder, Steve Apfelbaum, shares his thoughts on what this momentous occasion means not only to us as a company, but to the field of ecological restoration.

Reminiscence of Thirty Years and a Look Forward:
Taylor Creek Restoration Nursery

“The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant, “What good is it?” If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”

– Aldo Leopold, Round River: from the Journals of Aldo Leopold

Thirty years ago, the writings of Aldo Leopold helped AES recognize the value of investing in the long-term effort to save and restore remnant prairies (and other ecosystems)…and of finding ways to give economic standing to the native plant species of the prairie, wetland and oak savanna ecosystems.

In a most rudimentary way, economic standing meant that the ~1200 native Midwestern plant species would be valued for reclaiming damaged land and for restoring land health, soil health and habitat for the tens of thousands of plant, wildlife, microbes, fungi that share these ecosystems.

There has been no grand plan on how to do this, only opportunities and plans developed along the path of learning.

This investment has focused in three areas:

  1. Investing in people who care and creating an ever broadening culture of conservation because of the meaningful work and the passion of people who care;
  2. Learning about the process and details essential to the conservation of native species; and
  3. Openly and honestly sharing what we learn with our professional colleagues, friends, clients, customers, regulators, and others.

Today we celebrate 30 years of this journey with the many colleagues, friends, clients, regulators, and others with whom we have shared this path. This celebration is but a reflective moment along this path.

In a very humble way, the investment by AES in Taylor Creek Restoration Nursery has contributed to creating five important outcomes.

Protecting the genetics of a region. From Northwest Indiana across northern and central Illinois to central Wisconsin and beyond, Taylor Creek has collected native species genetics from more than 10,000 populations of native plant species. The gene pool preserved by the nursery for three decades represents a very large percentage of the plant genetics of the native plants of these ecosystems.

Elevating the conversation about native plants and their ecosystems. Early on, AES was attempting to protect remnants and show economic value by paying landowners for the “mother stock” seeds, but we quickly realized that other voices would greatly expand this effort. A small group of AES staff and neighboring friends formed the Prairie Enthusiasts, now a voluntary nonprofit stewardship network operating in 6 states with 12 chapters.

Today, the broadening conversation – which involves sharing our passion with every landowner we meet – has led to the protection and restoration of hundreds of remnants. The Prairie Enthusaists now protect many dozens of prairie remnants. And, a conservation culture now infuses many communities, as illustrated by examples like Brodhead’s, “WildFlower Days”, or the community of Argyle, WI, becoming the guardian of newly protected preserves such as the Erickson Wetland.

Prairie enthusiasts, local Audubon chapters, land trusts and other conservation groups have been inspired to become stewards and guardians of protected sensitive remnants. Most gratifying are the hundreds of landowners now protecting and nurturing their remnants, and planting prairie around their farm fields as buffers along streams, or wildflower plantings around their homes.

Contributing to the foundation of a regional restoration movement. The idea of Taylor Creek Restoration Nursery actually started 37 years ago in 1980 when we learned it was impossible to purchase in the marketplace the quality or quantity of prairie seed needed for a 2 square mile mining site reclamation project near Black River Falls, WI.

The situation was a bit ironic as Wisconsin had just passed regulations requiring the use of indigenous plant species in mine reclamation projects. As a result, we collaboratively started a nursery on the mine site in collaboration with the client, Inland Steel. This nursery, started with seed collected in the wild, was harvested annually for 22 years to produce the native seed for the restoration of what is now Lake Wazee County Park, a popular Midwestern scuba diving destination.

The availability of seed and plants today has expanded as has the community and culture of conservation. Our Midwestern conservation community today has grown to encompass regulations, aspirations, and passion by so many wonderful individuals who have learned the virtues of native plants, and without whom, this movement would not be as robust as it has become.

Broadening restoration to a global movement. Recent science has documented that native prairie plants have the potential to address:

  • protection and cleansing of threatened surface and ground water supplies
  • regional pollinator declines and food security issues
  • habitat restoration for both common and rare wildlife and fisheries, and
  • regrowth of soil carbon stocks as one of the most important offsets for reduction of atmospheric greenhouse gases.

Scientific investigations – including work AES/TCRN have led or contributed to – have documented that the deep-rooted, long-lived native plants can provide all of these ecosystem services at the same time, providing multiple benefits for each invested dollar.

Perhaps ecosystem restoration will help “You be You”…because of what you eat. It now appears that the economy associated with native plants and ecosystem restoration may help secure our water supplies, our food supplies and the nutritional quality of our food. Human nutrition is transferred from soils, and soil microbes to the vegetables, fruit and, eventually, to the meat we eat. Human health and nutrition are tied to the health of the soils, and to the vegetation and microbes that create and maintain soil health.

Will “Corn flakes” be replaced by “Indian Grass Flakes” anytime soon? Maybe! I hope so!

The transformation is most evident in the meat production industry based on corn finishing of livestock. It appears to be rapidly swinging to grass-fed and grass-finished beef with demand growing at nearly 40% annually. The demand for prairie is now linked to our food supply.

This shift is supported by human health and nutrition data suggesting the fatty acid profiles of grass fed/finished meat alone may justify the restoration of grasslands as a very real and important turning point for yet another series of benefits.

In closing, AES is proud to have invested in people and ecosystems, and is pleased to share Taylor Creek Restoration Nursery with our friends, neighbors, customers, and partners. Our investment in this nursery for over 30 years appears – to at least one entirely biased ecologist – to be an important investment in the health of… not only ecosystems, but even us humans!

Steve Apfelbaum, Founder & President

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Erin StraubCelebrating 30 Years of Ecosystem Restoration