Go back

Austin Peay's Southeastern Grasslands Institute joins National Park Service to restore over 3,000 acres of grasslands

By: Colby Wilson April 12, 2024


Photo: Dr. Dwayne Estes, executive director of the Southeastern Grasslands Institute and professor of biology at Austin Peay State University, works in the field with his students.

CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. - Under the direction of Dr. Dwayne Estes, the executive director of the Southeastern Grasslands Institute (SGI), principal investigator for the Center of Excellence for Field Biology and professor of biology at Austin Peay State University, SGI has developed a rapport with the National Park Service (NPS) that stretches back more than a decade.

This started small, relatively speaking, with site-specific scientific research projects—$27,000 here, $50,000 there—to support individual graduate students, fieldwork and other activities. Now, SGI is working with $8.8 million in funding over the next five years to restore native grasslands in national parks across the eastern United States.

The Park Service’s trust in SGI’s work has grown alongside the scale of funding. This happened in conjunction with a renewed interest from the NPS in grasslands; as Estes puts it, agencies like the NPS were realizing that grasslands had been “out of sight, out of mind” for too long. Once focus on native grasslands became a front-burner issue for conservation agencies, SGI was well-positioned to be a leading player in their revival.

Once the right opportunity presented itself, the partnership between SGI and the NPS took off like a rocket. The NPS worked diligently alongside SGI to develop a competitive proposal for funding through the Inflation Reduction Act and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which resulted in SGI and the NPS receiving funding for the multimillion-dollar grassland restoration project.

“SGI is excited to partner with NPS to restore and reconstruct grasslands on public lands,” said Jeremy French, SGI’s director of ecological restoration and stewardship. “Restoring and reconstructing grasslands on public land is a key step towards guarding against biodiversity loss, improving ecosystem resilience in the face of climate change and protecting the historical and cultural importance of grasslands in the eastern United States. Sadly, 90-99% of historic old-growth grasslands in the eastern United States have been lost, but through this partnership, we will improve, restore and reconstruct thousands of acres of grasslands and open woodlands.”

According to a press release from the National Park Service, SGI will “remove invasive species and plant native, climate-adapted species to revitalize and preserve grasslands within the parks. The restored grasslands will promote biodiversity, ecological resilience and cultural landscape integrity.”

“This opportunity from the National Park Service will require us to expand both the size of our staff and the geographic area where they are based,” said Theo Witsell, SGI’s chief conservation officer. “We’ll be operating on the ground in 35 national parks, from Vermont all the way down to Vicksburg, Mississippi. It’s a tremendous project with an opportunity to do some really impactful restoration work. The magnitude of that work and the responsibility it carries are not lost on any of us at SGI.”

Estes listed many of the sites, including the Manassas and Gettysburg national battlefields, Rock Creek Park right in the heart of Washington D.C., and other historical parks with many open landscapes. These are high-visibility sites where the work can impact both the environment and the visitors, and SGI has a deeply researched strategy to maximize its ability to make an impact.

Because of these lands' history and significance, SGI has unique access to a sweeping historical record of what these sites and many others were like hundreds of years ago. The challenge posed to SGI is to restore the native grassland habitats that were common in the 17th and 18th centuries into the modern world.

“These are really historical parks that have a lot of land that has been highly altered from its natural condition,” Estes said. “The NPS really wants to make their lands more biologically diverse. The early historical records suggest that those regions had an abundance of native grassland habitat. So, what we're doing here is converting these degraded, non-native fields to native grassland habitats similar to those found in the region over 300 years ago. This will not only be beneficial to biodiversity, but it will also be a step in the right direction from a climate change mitigation perspective.”

SGI is responsible for strategizing, planning, coordinating, preparing and planting the sites, conducting biological and ecological monitoring and reporting the results. Altogether, the NPS is committing to work with SGI to restore over 3,000 acres of high-priority grasslands across 35 national parks.

“Our work on the ground in these parks will include both restoration (on sites where remnant natural vegetation remains) and re-creation (on sites where the native vegetation is long gone and will have to be reintroduced),” Witsell said. “With both approaches, the resulting habitat will benefit many species – from pollinators and other insects to reptiles, amphibians, birds and mammals.”

SGI has never been shy about dreaming big. Now they’re receiving support that helps many of those dreams become real, and not a moment too soon — estimates indicate that more than 99% of many types of southeastern native grasslands have been lost, and SGI is committed to restoring as much as possible, as thoroughly as possible.

“Because there's been so much excitement around what SGI is doing, we've had some amazing opportunities come our way,” Estes said. “The conservation community is finally realizing how extensive grasslands were historically in the eastern United States and the damage that these natural landscapes have sustained — it's way bigger than me, it's way bigger than Austin Peay. It's a national-level crisis that we've been called to respond to. Now, we're inspiring people who have the ability to help save and solve that crisis. And these people think very big.”