As part of FOX News' feature on President Bush, I spoke with Bret Baier about our ranch in Crawford, Texas. We love our home — and one of the things we're proudest of is our project to restore the Prairie Chapel Ranch to its original landscape.
• Click here to see photos from Prairie Chapel Ranch.
Native plant conservation is a great pastime for anyone who loves outdoor work, and it offers many environmental benefits. Native grasses are better for the soil, and they use less water than their non-native cousins. Wild prairies can include more than 100 types of grasses and forbs — and diverse prairies attract a more diverse array of wildlife. Central Texas wildflowers like the basket flower, for example, are an important food source for birds.
About a century ago, our ranch would have been rolling Central Texas prairie. Over the years, however, farming practices altered the landscape, introducing non-native grasses. Since President Bush and I moved to the ranch in 2000, a native grass expert has helped us return some of our land to wild prairie. To eradicate the non-native plants, we've plowed, and plowed — and any time non-native sprouts come up, we plow again.
Four years of repeated plowing — in addition to the judicious use of herbicides — finally prepared our main field for a large planting of native grasses. Controlled burns cleared other areas of the ranch. We planted with good seed from an intact Central Texas prairie, and with the help of an unusually rainy season, our fifth year has produced enough native grass to hay. Now, our prairie includes sideoats grama (the state grass of Texas), indian grass, switchgrass, buffalo grass, and native wildflowers. The main prairie grass of Central Texas, little bluestem, ripples across our land in the wind. Our native grasses serve as habitats for ground-nesting birds, and recently we heard the first call of bobwhite quail on our property since we've owned it. Last August, migrating Monarch butterflies stopped to rest in our wildflowers en route to Mexico.
The federal government has many resources to help you grow native plants and eradicate non-native plants on your property. In 1935, President Roosevelt established the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service in response to the poor land management that led to the devastating Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Today, the Service's Conservation Technical Assistance program provides individuals, groups and communities with the scientific and technological expertise to conserve plants on non-federal lands. This Web site will help you find experts you can work with at a USDA service center near you.
One of USDA's signature conservation initiatives is its Plant Materials Program. Twenty-seven regional centers collect native grasses, legumes, wildflowers, trees, and shrubs. The seeds are offered to private landowners, so they can use native plants to control soil erosion, improve water and air quality, improve grazing lands, and enhance fish and wildlife habitat. The Natural Resources Conservation Service also maintains the PLANTS database, which is a great tool for identifying native and non-native plants in your area.
To select the best plant materials for your land, you must first understand your soil. USDA's Web Soil Survey offers maps and data for more than 95% of the nation's counties. Once you know more about your soil, you can use the USDA's online VegSpec program, which will help you develop a plant conservation plan tailored to your property.
The Department of the Interior manages one out of every five acres of land in the United States — and offers a wealth of information on how to cultivate native plant habitats. The Department's Bureau of Land Management, in partnership with Great Britain's Kew Gardens, operates the Seeds of Success program. Seeds of Success collects, conserves, and develops native seed materials for restoration, and provides seeds from more than 5,000 species to growers and researchers in the United States. The Bureau of Land Management also publishes information on how you can help curb the spread of invasive weeds, which you can access here and here.
Financial support for conservation projects is available through Department of the Interior grant programs. Along with the USDA, Interior offers matching grants to citizen groups (such as Fire Safe councils) that cultivate "green belts" to control the spread of wildfires. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service provides financial assistance to landowners to help preserve native plant habitats for rare, declining, and protected animal species. Conservation grant information is available at www.fws.gov/grants.
Private institutions offer user-friendly expertise and information — especially for beginners starting small-scale plant conservation projects. The National Wildlife Federation Web site offers gardening tip sheets that show how to use native plants to provide habitat for animals in cities and suburbs. The Native Seed Network works to make native plants more accessible to the public. You can purchase seed and look for plants appropriate to your region on their Web site.
The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center is world-renowned for its efforts to conserve native wildflowers, plants, and landscapes. The Wildflower Center's Native Plant Information Network allows you to browse through thousands of plant images, submit questions to the Center's resident horticulturalist, or find seeds and technical help for your native plant restoration project.
In partnership with the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, the National Park Foundation recently established the First Bloom program. First Bloom will take children on visits to national parks near their homes and introduce young people to plants native to their area. First Bloom encourages young people to be good stewards of our beautiful country.
Whether you live in wide-open prairie or the inner city, practicing native plant conservation is a great way to get exercise, invest in your property, and protect our natural environment. Good luck, and happy planting!