APSU leads national conservation effort with Southeastern Grasslands Initiative
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APSU leads national conservation effort with Southeastern Grasslands Initiative

Dr. Dwayne Estes(Posted May 21, 2018)

CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. – Earlier this year, Dr. Dwayne Estes, Austin Peay State University professor of botany, was eating lunch with Henry Paulson, the former U.S. Treasury Secretary under President George W. Bush, and his wife, Wendy Paulson, when the conversation suddenly turned to prairies. Between bites, Estes explained that for thousands of years, grasslands covered much of the southern United States, but today, more than 90 percent of this vast habitat, along with the different creatures that called these grasslands home, has disappeared.  

“The Paulsons, Hank and Wendy, they’re major conservationists, so sitting at the table with them was pretty great,” Estes said.

For the past year, the APSU professor has been traveling the country to drum up support for these endangered eco-systems, delivering 84 presentations to more than 3,000 people. On May 18, the Tennessee Wildlife Federation recognized his efforts by awarding him with its coveted “Conservationist of the Year” award.

“Grassland conservation is becoming a movement whose time has come,” Estes said.

It’s a topic he’s been passionate about throughout his career, and last year, Estes realized Austin Peay was prepared to lead this national conservation effort. In January, Estes and Theo Witsell, a botanist and ecologist with the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission, launched the Southeastern Grasslands Initiative (SGI). Housed within Austin Peay’s Center of Excellence for Field Biology and the APSU Department of Biology, the burgeoning organization is forming an impressive array of collaborators and partnerships, including the University of Texas’s Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, the University of North Carolina’s North Carolina Botanical Garden, the Society for Range Management, and Roundstone Native Seed LLC.

Thanks to grants from philanthropic foundations such as the BAND Foundation, a private family foundation that focuses on nature conservation, and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, SGI is now ready to begin protecting and restoring endangered grasslands.

“By reaching our funding goal through these grants, which for our first year was approximately $575,000, we’ve hired four staff members and are set to hire our first coordinator position this summer,” Estes said. “This person will be based here at APSU, to work across central Tennessee and Kentucky to restore 7,000 acres of grasslands, in collaboration with 10 other partner organizations.”

SGI was designed to serve a 23-state region across the southern United States, spanning from New York City to Columbia, Missouri, south to the Miami, Florida, and Corpus Christi, Texas, with the goal of hiring regional coordinators to serve in different key areas.

“These regional coordinators will be based at our partner institutions, such as the Atlanta Botanical Garden,” Estes said.

“What our coordinators will do is help plan the restorations, develop and lead an army of grassland volunteers, and work hand-in-hand with land owners and agencies to help put these prairies back in place,” Estes said. “We’ll be targeting private land owners for the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service grant-funded project, and the idea is they’ll be able to apply for federal funds through this grant we received, along with 10 other partners, and we’ll help guide the restoration of these projects, ensuring consistency across state and eco-region boundaries and that restorations are science-based.”

The SGI received a major boost earlier this year when, thanks to the BAND Foundation grant, it was able to hire two renowned experts—Witsell, SGI’s co-founder, and Dr. Reed Noss, one of the world’s top conservation biologists.

“These are the best of the best,” Estes said.

Noss, SGI’s chief science advisor, recently retired as the Provost’s Distinguished Research Professor from the University of Central Florida, and he’s published several seminal books on the subject, including “Saving Nature’s Legacy: Protecting and Restoring Biodiversity” and “Forgotten Grasslands of the South: Natural History and Conservation.”

“Reed is considered one of the top 500 published authors of all time in all genres, and his addition to our team is invaluable,” Estes said. “It feels great to know that we have some of the best of the best on our team. It also means a lot to me personally that my APSU family has embraced and supported SGI. There are so many on campus, starting with the University’s administrators, all the way down to my own graduate students, who have gotten behind this. They all deserve thanks.

“This initiative is an attempt to restore bits and pieces of this ecosystem that we’ve lost over the last 200 years,” Estes said. “While grasslands as a whole in the Southeast have declined by 90 percent, down from nearly 100 million acres two centuries ago, many types such as the prairies around Clarksville are 99 percent gone. The explorers who described these prairies in the 1790s, they described buffalo and prairie chickens—things we don’t have any more. You have to remember, it was originally grassland for thousands and thousands of years before we got here.”

Information on SGI, including a video and information on how to become a member, is available online at https://www.segrasslands.org/.