A trip to Strait Creek Prairie Bluffs is no walk in the park, because, well, it isn’t a park. Tucked away in southern Ohio’s Pike and Adams Counties, the preserve is literally rough around the edges. Primarily encompassed by dolomite bluffs, the area dissuades easy access, its main entrance found off of a winding gravel road. And at first glance, Strait Creek seems a bit blemished.
Stifled by years of soil erosion from agricultural practices, suppression of fire, and non-native plant growth, the land was in need of a makeover when the Conservancy first began acquiring acreage in the region over twenty years ago. Though imperfect, the Conservancy has long recognized the potential of this landscape.
“Prior to the arrival of Europeans, this region of Ohio was a unique mixture of natural forest, woodland, and grassland,” explains Dave Minney, the Conservancy’s southern Ohio preserve manager. “We knew that restoration of this distinctive area would enhance existing species and attract a wide variety of others.”
Persisting along cliff edges, narrow ridges, and forest openings, the preserve’s most special features are its remnant prairie communities – a type of dry-adapted prairie thought to have originated in the region during conditions that prevailed 6,000 – 8,000 years ago. At last count, 30 rare plants species are known to call the 515-acre preserve home, including some of the state’s finest examples of little bluestem prairie, a globally rare plant community.
Equally impressive is the preserve’s floral diversity, says Minney. “The diversity of geologic substrates in this area has resulted in over 575 flowering species, of which ninety percent are native – that’s pretty incredible.”
In addition to plant species, this prairie-woodland forest system attracts a variety to birds, including such species as the Kentucky warbler, red-shouldered hawk, and the yellow-throated vireo.
But encouraging populations of these types of plant and animal communities does not come easily. The Conservancy knows that restoring this land to its former splendor has meant – and will continue to mean – following a sound, science-based plan and plenty of hard work.
“The overall ecological goal for this preserve is to restore the little bluestem prairie community and surrounding chinquapin oak woodlands by controlling invasive and non-native plant species,” explains Minney.
So far, prescribed burns have brought back over 50 acres of prairie, but long-term goals include the restoration of an additional 200 acres of barrens and woodland. With over 500 acres of land to monitor, the Conservancy has turned to scores of trained volunteers to assist with the fire applications and other restoration efforts that will help control the invasive species.
Nearly twice a month a team of volunteers makes the trip to Strait Creek with one mission; cedar clearing. Because these red cedars will eventually displace the native vegetation, removing them is a critical component in increasing and expanding the targeted prairie communities.
Eventually, the Conservancy intends for this preserve to evolve from one requiring restoration to one needing only management. “We plan to use Strait Creek as a pilot project to demonstrate what forest conservation and restoration looks like” say Minney. “Lessons learned here will help us to better protect other natural areas.”