Refuge restoration efforts already have provided for a diversity of life on the Refuge including hundreds of native plant species, over 200 bird species, and dozens of mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and butterflies. The Visitor Center is a major environmental education facility that includes exhibits, meeting rooms, theater, laboratory-classroom, bookstore, and research facilities. The Refuge is also the home station for the Land Management and Research Demonstration program, where new land management innovations and research are implemented and showcased.
Four Refuge purposes were established in early Refuge planning documents including:
- To restore native tallgrass prairie, wetland, and woodland habitats for breeding and migratory waterfowl and resident wildlife.
- To serve as a major environmental education center providing opportunities for study.
- To provide outdoor recreation benefits to the public.
- To provide assistance to local landowners to improve their lands for wildlife habitat.
The Refuge is a vast expanse of wind-swept prairie punctuated by sheltering oak savannas. Walnut Creek and its tributaries, bordered by sedge meadows, meander through the Refuge providing clean water for aquatic wildlife. Bound and connected to river systems to the north and south, the Refuge will form a sanctuary and corridor for prairie dependent wildlife species. These ecosystems are alive with a wide diversity of plants and wildlife that are thriving again. The processes that contribute to a healthy ecosystem include fire, grazing, nutrient cycling, pollination, and water filtration. These processes are working to improve life for plants, wildlife, and people. The picture of a landscape that existed before European-American settlement is renewed.
Guided by sound biological information and on-going research, this landscape continues to be rejuvenated through the dedicated work of staff, volunteers, and the support of the public and the many partners of the Refuge. People of all ages visit and contribute to the ongoing efforts. Visitors come to the Visitor Center to learn new concepts and to learn about and use new tools and methods to restore prairies. Visitors leave the Refuge with a sense of belonging coupled with new knowledge of these ecosystems, a connection to the natural history of the region, and a desire to be involved in conservation. The Refuge is an open laboratory where experts and laypersons alike share information to demonstrate how to restore and reconstruct tallgrass prairie, oak savanna, and sedge meadow.
The Refuge will actively protect, restore, reconstruct, and manage diverse native communities of tallgrass prairie, oak savanna, sedge meadow, and aquatic ecosystems and the natural processes integrated with these ecosystems to enhance the vitality and health of the natural prairie environment.
The Refuge will protect, restore, and maintain biologically diverse populations of native wildlife associated with healthy prairie, savanna, sedge meadow, and aquatic ecosystems.
The Refuge will provide a variety of wildlife dependent recreational and educational opportunities for visitors to experience and treasure the native tallgrass prairie heritage, ecological processes, and cultural resources, while participating in reconstruction efforts or enjoying other activities on the Refuge.
Tallgrass prairie and savanna management activities often involve intensive, and often, disruptive actions. The Refuge conducts management under two types of effort: restoration and reconstruction.
Restoration is work that is conducted on prairie or savanna remnants where there are still native plants or trees present. Activities involved with restoration begin with careful removal of unwanted or non-native plant species. Unwanted or non-native plant species include shrubs, trees and invasive plants that were not originally found on the landscape before Europeans inhabited the area. Removal of unwanted plants can be followed with planting seedlings or seeding sites with additional species to increase native plant diversity. In some cases, it is not feasible to remove all non-native or unwanted plant species from a site. In these situations, controlling the spread of these plants so they do not dominate or crowd out the desired plants is necessary.. Restoration can sometimes be an ugly or disruptive process. Removal of trees and other unwanted plants often involves the use of tractors and mowers, shredders, hand tools, grazing, chemical sprays, and fire. Native prairie and savanna species are fire resistant, or even need fire to complete their life cycles, so they are not damaged by the use of fire. These tools not only help to remove unwanted vegetation but can also encourage or stimulate native seed beds that are dormant in the soil. Within a year or two of restoration management activities, remnants can begin to show glimpses of what they once were.
Reconstruction is exactly what it implies. It begins with bare dirt and plants are installed directly on the site. In prairie plantings, as many grass and flower species are incorporated; seed and plant plugs grown in the greenhouse are utilized. Once the field is planted the Refuge spends the next two years conducting timely mowing to reduce competition from unwanted plant species that will invade the site. Once the planting is established other management activities such as grazing, chemical spraying or prescribed fire to improve the site. It is almost impossible to keep out unwanted invasive plants from a new planting site because these types of plants often thrive where there is recent disturbance. Again, site where these management activities occur, may appear may appear unattractive to the eye, but there is a lot of progress being made. It takes many decades to establish a healthy prairie. A prairie cannot be recreated in one lifetime, when it was destroyed in just one century.
Visitors often inquire about why so many trees are cut. Trees invaded the prairie community when agriculture converted the prairie to farm fields. Once the prairie sod was broken and tiles began to move water more quickly into the stream beds causing erosion to take place, trees were able to become established, their seed brought to the prairie by birds and animals. To establish or restore prairie, trees must be removed. Even in a savanna, many shrub and tree species that were not found in savannas before European/American settlement have become established and must be removed to open up the understory so that native plants can be revived.
If you are interested in the management of Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge or have more questions regarding restoration and reconstruction, please contact the Refuge Manager at 515-994-3400.