Conserving the Sandusky Plains: Prairie Restoration & Seeding New Prairies

By the 1970s, the Claridon and Tallgrass prairies were two of only twenty-eight surviving prairie patches in Ohio. The prairies were preserved in part by accidents: in 1978, a disastrous blizzard meant Marion County could not afford to mow along the highways, leading to prairie flowers flourishing, while chance sparks from passing trains started fires that burned the Claridon prairie to the ground.

Movements to protect and expand North-Central Ohio’s prairies came into their own amidst nationwide concerns about ecology in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1968, the first national symposium on prairie restoration was held in Illinois, bringing together two dozen botanists. By 1974, nine students at Miami University had begun manually reseeding acres of prairie near Oxford. By the time the sixth North American Prairie Conference was held in Ohio in 1978, it had grown to include 77 papers given by hundreds of scientists. North America’s prairie conservation movement had arrived.

In 1972, Dr. Larry Yoder (above photo, R) came to the relatively new OSU-Marion campus as a botanist. By 1977 — spurred by concern from Trella Romine & others that the Claridon Prairie was under active threat of destruction by Conrail, after remnant prairies just West of Marion were unceremoniously paved over — he began planting a three-acre prairie on the campus at the site of the former Marion County Farm. Yoder & his enthusiastic students — known as the “prairie dogs” — gathered the seeds for dozens of native plant species to seed the new prairie from remnant prairies across Marion County. Yoder left Marion in the early 1980s to direct the Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center at Goshen College in Indiana. Reflecting on the OSU-M prairie, he noted years later that the prairie would take generations to truly flourish: “People want instant gratification too often, like TV dinners, but maintaining a prairie takes a good part of a lifetime.”

While Marion’s remnant prairies remain scarce, prairie restoration & new-seeded prairies have become their own regional movement, with prairie plant nurseries like Natives in Harmony (Marengo, Ohio) leading a statewide movement to propagate native plants.