CUMBERLAND, Ohio — One of the world’s largest wildlife conservation centers, The Wilds, is nestled among the rolling hills of southeastern Ohio’s Muskingum County. What makes this 10,000-acre safari park and conservation center unique is its location, on top of 14 square miles of reclaimed surface mined lands.
It’s on this reclaimed landscape that USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and The Wilds have partnered together on a grasslands prairie project through a three-year Conservation Innovation Grant.
This national conservation grant focuses on developing and adopting innovative conservation technologies and approaches. The grant is administered through NRCS and funded through the agency’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program.
Reclaiming the land
There are an estimated 700,000 acres of previously mined land in Ohio, according to the Ohio Division of Natural Resources. This demonstrates the potential for innovative land management approaches on reclaimed mine lands, such as those being implemented at The Wilds conservation center.
At The Wilds, more than 90 percent of the land was surface mined for coal. Today, the grasslands and forested areas of the park are in varied stages of restoration and reclamation. There are an estimated 125 lakes on the property, along with about 164 acres of wetlands.
“We essentially have a 10,000-acre living laboratory,” says Shana Byrd, Restoration Ecology Program director for The Wilds. “This is a landscape that is still in recovery and will be for some time.”
Conservation and grazing
Part of The Wilds living laboratory is a multi-use sustainable prairie project funded through NRCS’s CIG. A goal of the 60-acre project is to demonstrate how a combination of warm season and cool season grasses can be successfully incorporated into a productive rotational grazing system, while allowing for the potential to expand grazing seasons for livestock.
“The project explores using prairies for grazing, biomass production, increasing soil fertility, and improving wildlife habitat with the hope that it will serve as a model for area farmers,” Byrd says.
Conservation practices being evaluated are land preparation, use, and management, including no-till planting, tilled planting, no-till planting combined with grazing using bison, and sub-soiling with tilling.
The project’s mix of prairie plant species were selected for their adaptability to marginal lands. Plant species were chosen based on suitability for livestock grazing such as big blue stem, Indian grass, switchgrass and eastern gamma grass.
Some of the prairie’s flowering plants suitable for wildlife habitat and pollinators are purple coneflower, black-eyed Susan and wild bergamot.
“We’ve seen increases in biodiversity, not only in the number of desirable plant species, but also in diversity of pollinators as well as small mammals,” Byrd says.
Plants species were also selected for their ability to rebuild soils through extensive root systems which can also increase soil productivity. “Equally important, the plants have the ability to store carbon,” says Byrd. “The grass shoots can also serve as feed-stock for bio-energy as these markets develop, which could provide additional income opportunities for farmers in the future.
“Incorporating a prairie crop can allow more options for farmers to regenerate soil and support biodiversity, while also earning income from biomass harvest and grass-fed livestock production.”
Taking it to the people
NRCS field office personnel working one-on-one with farmers on marginal lands can benefit from the conservation technologies and approaches learned and developed from the CIG’s prairie project.
“This shows even the landowner with soils that have limited production capacity some options for producing quality forages,” says Mark DeBrock, state biologist with NRCS in Columbus.
Not only does the prairie project have the potential to benefit farmers, Byrd says programs such as NRCS’ CIG, help The Wilds meet their mission of advancing conservation through science, education and hands-on experiences.
The Wilds is a popular tourist attraction and education center with more than 100,000 people visiting last year. Whether visitors are taking an open-air safari tour to view southern white rhinoceros and cheetahs or exploring a diverse butterfly habitat, visitors are also learning about conservation education and creating healthy landscapes.
Since 1935, NRCS’s nationwide conservation delivery system works with private landowners to put conservation on the ground based on specific, local conservation needs, while accommodating State and national interests.
To learn more about NRCS’s programs and how they can benefit you and your natural resources, visit us on the web at www.oh.nrcs.usda.gov.