Ohio’s pre-settlement landscape boasted prairies interspersed among the tracts of forests. The tallgrass prairies that once covered about 4% of Ohio (more than a million acres) exist now as mostly scattered remnants most often found in old cemeteries and along railroad tracks and power line rightof- ways. North American prairies evolved in the rain shadow cast by the Rocky Mountains. About 5,000-8,000 years ago, Ohio experienced a drier, warmer climate similar to that found in Nebraska or Iowa today. This allowed western prairie species to spread to Ohio. Prairie plants require full sunlight and quickly succumb to the shading of trees. Why, then, did prairies persist in Ohio as the temperature became cooler and moister? Why did the process of succession not lead to woodlands? The answer is fire. Evidence suggests that Native Americans burned prairies for two reasons. First, fire killed the tree and shrub seedlings that emerged and maintained the unique, grass- and forb-dominated character of the prairies that deer thrive on. Occasional fires maintained this important source of food & clothing for these human communities. Strategically set fires were also used to chase deer in a certain direction where hunters waited to slay with flint arrows. Prairies exist in Ohio today because of these fires, and fire remains an important tool to prairie managers and restorationists. MEEC staff burns about 1/3 of the prairie each spring. This prevents woody species from establishing, kills unwanted weeds, returns nutrients to the soil for new growth and exposes the soil to the warming rays of the sun.
Look carefully over the entire prairie, and note the diversity of the colors, heights and textures of the vegetation. This prairie habitat is diverse, with many microhabitats, influenced by differences in soil, slope and moisture. Notice the areas with the lush vegetation and shrubs. There are “seeps” where water is emerging.
Take a careful look at the pond and its surrounding vegetation. You can see short vegetation around the pond, followed by a layer of shrubs such as willow which thrive in moist soils around ponds and rivers. This transition found around waterways is called a riparian zone and fosters diverse animal life. It’s important to not mow or cut the vegetation surrounding waterways. In addition to fostering diversity, this zone absorbs excess nutrients before they enter the water and protects against flooding and erosion damage in high water years.
The pond itself is actually the exposed water table of the Great Miami Valley Buried Aquifer, part of an ancient river valley system called the Teays that was filled by the glaciers. One of the largest aquifers in the US, it provides the water most of us drink. That it is so close to the surface and covered by a permeable layer of sand and gravel reminds us of the vulnerability of this resource and the need to protect it.