They call it the High Bench: The view from a prairie ridge south of Santee overlooks a natural heritage of blazing star, goldenrod, little bluestem, and oaks. But the beautiful view is threatened and the Santee Sioux Nation has partnered with multiple conservation agencies to restore the tallgrass prairie and oak woodlands. The restoration work started in October 2018 and will benefit people, plants, and wildlife in multiple ways.
Historically, frequent wildfires maintained open prairies and sunny oak woodlands along the Missouri River by preventing the spread of eastern red-cedar and other brush. Lack of fire in the woodlands has promoted the invasion of shade-tolerant native trees and shrubs, such as hackberry and dogwood, and non-native species such as Siberian elm and buckthorn. The now-dense trees shade out native grasses and wildflowers on the woodland floor and reduce sunlight needed by the next generation of oaks to sprout and grow.
To restore these plant communities, the Santee Sioux Nation partnered with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), Northern Prairies Land Trust, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, and Nebraska Forest Service to plan 122 acres of cedar removal and 207 acres of woodland thinning. These projects would allow the Santee to reintroduce prescribed fire into the area. The project builds on previous restoration work by the Santee Sioux. Using the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program, the Tribe has controlled invasive brush and adjusted grazing practices to support tallgrass prairie health and the use of prescribed fire.
Prescribed fire is a familiar tool for the Santee Tribe. The Santee Hazardous Fuels crew often conducts prescribed fires on its own and other tribal lands in Nebraska. After some training, crew members were able to add tree identification and forest management techniques to their résumés.
Duwayne Traversie, BIA Fuels Specialist, said that employees of the Fuels Program are strengthening leadership abilities and developing career skills in natural resource management through this project. Theo Wright, a crew member, agrees: “training opportunities are more limited elsewhere. [This program] is more diverse and opens more paths.” Brittany Iron Shell, crew supervisor, adds, “I love science and being outdoors and it’s cool to combine it all into one career.”
The woodland and prairie work will not only benefit native plants, but also game species such as turkeys, squirrels, and white-tailed deer, and rare animals, such as the northern long-eared bat, Bell’s vireo, and monarch and regal fritillary butterfly.
During his lifetime, crew member Jeremy Archampeau has observed a decline in traditional medicinal plants in the area. “I am interested to see if the project helps those medicinal plants come back,” he said. Crew supervisor Leslie Brownrigg is excited about the effects of their work. “I see more opportunities [on Santee land] to do the same thing: getting more of the landscape back to its natural state, opening up rangeland and bringing back native grasses.”
Perhaps the most exciting results cannot be seen from the High Bench. The project’s social and economic benefits will strengthen community connections to conservation and the land. Not only were crew members kept employed during a slow time of year, but the crew’s size was actually expanded for the project. Hank Miller, Math and Science Division Head at Nebraska Indian Community College hopes to use the project for environmental monitoring sites for his students. Trees cut from the woodland are available to tribal members for home heating. Brush-free and healthy grasslands and forests will benefit the tribal ranching program and buffer the town of Santee from high intensity wildfires. Crew member David Freemont sums it up well: “I am happy to be part of this project because it will have so many positive impacts.”
This project is also an effort of the Nebraska Natural Legacy Project and NGPC’s WILD Nebraska Habitat Program. In addition to the partners mentioned above, funding is provided by the Nebraska Environmental Trust, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and The Nebraska Wildlife Conservation Fund.