Beneath an open canopy of trees in the west savanna at Shaw Nature Reserve, Gray Summit, patches of woodland phlox stand out on the green landscape, while wood thrushes chirp overhead.
Five years ago, the scene in this very spot would have been quite different, said Mike Saxton, ecological restoration specialist at Shaw.
"You would have seen a wall of honeysuckle -- impenetrable, with almost no light in the understory," he said.
The only phlox growing here would have been limited to the edge, right along the road, and there would have only been one or two small patches.
But working in stages, the staff and volunteers have eliminated most of the invasive species from this area, thinned the trees and planted native seeds to increase the ecological biodiversity. The change is dramatic, especially for people in the know.
"We went from a wall of non-native shrubs to an area that's open, it's sunny . . . ," said Saxton.
A newer member of the Shaw Nature Reserve staff with just over a year under his belt, Saxton is the first person to work full time on restoration projects here.
However restoration work has been a focus at Shaw going back at least to the 1970s, maybe even earlier.
"There were precursors of ecological restoration work that go all the way back to the 1930s," said James Trager, restoration biologist at Shaw, noting there were wildflower plantings, "not always in the locations where we would put them, and tree plantings . . . but it was very spotty.
"Ecological restoration as we know it now started in earnest with a grant from the Missouri Prairie Foundation in 1979 to plant the 76 acres that is now the core of our prairie plantings," said Trager.
The grant provided funding to buy seed and to do the first prescribed burn at Shaw in early 1980. Seeding followed later that year, along with more plantings from 1982 through the present.
By the early 1990s, when Trager joined the staff, the forests at Shaw were "too dense and too shady with the wrong types of trees" growing, he said. "Wildflower populations were tanking because it was so dark in there."
To turn things around, they began cutting down cedar trees.
"The goal was to get the land back to what available evidence indicates that it looked like 300 years ago when Europeans began arriving," said Trager.
It's not about recreating the past, said Saxton. It's about increasing the biodiversity, which can help reduce carbon emissions, prevent flooding, provide habitat to pollinators, contribute to potable water and more.
There's also an aesthetic component to a diversified ecosystem, said Trager.
"People like nature; they like a wildness," he remarked. "People come out here and think it's untouched land because of the way it looks. It's just so rich in features. There are so many species and colors and shapes of tree trunks and all that stuff. It's not like an urban park. People really appreciate that.
"It's sort of like an art museum, in a sense. This is a museum of native vegetation," said Trager.
The restoration work also has an educational component to it. The staff share their knowledge with everyone from students on field trips to suburban homeowners who want to replicate Shaw's practices on their own patches of land to professionals in industries like landscaping.
"In that way, this is a living classroom," Saxton remarked.
Projects Depend on Season
The staff comes up with a plan for restoration projects using information culled from early land survey notes from the 1800s, letters and journals of the time period, old aerial photos, combined with ecological theory.
"We take all of those pieces, and we look at the historical context, current situations and where we are going with things like climate change and invasive species to try to formulate a plan of action," said Saxton.
The type of restoration projects going on at any given time depends very much on the time of year, what's growing and what is dormant.
"At the beginning of the season, it's almost all weeds (removal), with a little bit of seeds (collecting)," said Saxton. "By the middle of the summer, more seeds are coming online and there are fewer invasives. In fall, it's mostly seeds (collecting) with a litle bit of weeds (removal)."
In the fall, they also start getting back to brush control, along with a decent amount of planting and sewing seeds. Brush control continues through winter, which is the main time for prescribed burns, which helps eliminate what's not wanted and bring back more of what is.
Putting Back Natural Balance
The idea of burning land to help things grow may sound unnatural, but it's quite the opposite, said Saxton.
"The landscapes of Missouri evolved with fire. It's a natural part of the system," he said.
At Shaw, they use prescribed burns to help control invasive species, to maintain the open woodlands, which brings more light to the understory and encourages growth of a wide array of native plants.
In a short video of a prescribed burn from February posted on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9d4j8wYUaQ4, Saxton describes the process.
"People have reservations about using fire, but here it's not a scary thing, it's necessary . . . We are creating habitat, enhancing habitat, we're putting back the natural balance," he explains.
"In a few weeks, you'll see green plants coming up; it won't take long at all. Actually, because the ground will be black, it will heat up faster; it will stimulate germination of seeds, and it'll trigger the growth of existing plants. They'll start greening up before unburned areas.
"We are replicating one of the many natural processes that defined and determined these ecosystems," he says.
Trager recalled how after the introduction of prescribed burns at Shaw, many of the multi-stem trees began reverting back to single stem structures. The extra stems were dying off and burning away.
Prescribed burns are intense work, but they also are very effective and efficient, said Saxton.
"We are able to burn 200 acres in six hours, and when done right, fire is extremely safe and practical," he said, noting preburn preparations are critical. That includes creating fire breaks and making sure wind and humidity conditions are right.
The worst part of the work is often the smoke, said Trager.
Controlling Invasive Species
Bush honeysuckle is one invasive species that has gotten a lot of attention over the last few years, and it is one of the worst offenders at Shaw, but there are others that the staff goes after just as vigorously.
Garlic mustard is a relatively new invasive the staff and volunteers have been working hard to remove. It showed up a few years ago, but it's important to be aggressive in removing it so it doesn't become established, said Saxton.
Reed canary grass is another early season invasive they actively work to remove.
Invasives are plants that are not native to an area, although they originated in places with a similar climate and soil.
"They get imported here often with the best of intentions for reasons that range from it's pretty to it will feed my honeybees or retain soil or it will provide habitat or be forage for goats or cattle," said Trager. "But people don't take into account the reproductive potential of these plants when moved to a new land, which is good for them in all the right ways -- growing conditions, rain conditions and soil -- but without any of their natural enemies, so they become invasive; they take over everything."
It's important to note that not all nonnative plants will become invasive.
Volunteer Involvement Is Key
Volunteer involvement is a key factor in accomplishing restoration projects, said Saxton.
"All winter long we were teaching people how to identify these plants, how to use the tools, and then we go out to control the invasives," he said. "In the fall, we will have volunteers out collecting seeds, cleaning seed, helping us sow seed.
"Today, we were out pulling garlic mustard. We have workdays planned for Saturday; we've had workdays every Saturday since October."
Workdays for volunteers usually bring about 10 to 15 people together for camaraderie, interpretation and education, but those days also are about people giving back.
"It's not just about completing a task, but having ownership, getting people invested in what we are doing," said Saxton.
Shaw Nature Reserve includes 2,400 acres, but only roughly 1,000 of those acres are in active management and restoration (about 300 acres of prairie and 700 acres of woodland). The other 1,400 are in stasis, said Saxton.
A new strategic plan for Shaw sets the year 2030 as a goal for having all 2,400 acres under management.
"That will mean converting some row crop to prairie, transitioning low diversity graze pastures and fields to prairies," said Saxton.
"And those will be the easy ones," Trager commented.
So after 2030, will the job be finished? Not hardly.
John Behrer, director of Shaw Nature Reserve in Gray Summit, has a saying well known among the staff there: Ecological restoration work has a beginning, but no end.