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Pop Up Prairie Wants To Add Patches Of Prairie To St. Louis Parks

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Leigh Harris
More than an acre of St. Louis’ Tilles Park is now a native prairie restoration.

Compared to the U.S. coasts, Missouri and Illinois seem full of open space. Outside big urban areas, there’s plenty of land that hasn’t been built on. Yet prairies are in peril, along with many species for which they provide critical habitat.

Forester Jeff Harris first learned about their plight while working with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources a handful of years ago.

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Leigh Harris
Jeff Harris, co-founder of Pop Up Prairie, plants a wildflower in one of the sites he maintains in St. Louis.

“Two-hundred-plus years ago, there were 22 million acres of prairie in Illinois, and today we have 4,000 remnant acres. A lot of that prairie’s been converted to [agricultural] land or residential,” Harris explained to St. Louis on the Air on Monday’s show. “And Missouri’s the same — there’s less than 1% of the original prairie.”

In 2015, Harris and his older sister, Leigh Harris, teamed up to try to address the situation. Now both St. Louis residents, the siblings are working to restore such spaces — right in the heart of the city. In 2015, they founded the nonprofit Pop Up Prairie, with a goal to turn 10% of St. Louis parks into native prairie restorations in the next 10 to 20 years.

To the uninitiated, a city might appear to be a strange choice for prairie restoration. But to Jeff Harris, it makes a lot of sense — especially in a metropolitan area known for its many parks.

“There’s so much turf grass ... there’s so much potential [in St. Louis],” he said.

And Pop Up Prairie has had good success so far getting residents and key partners on board with their vision. Leigh Harris, the nonprofit’s executive director, said she and her brother work closely with the Department of Parks, Recreation, and Forestry — and with enthusiastic volunteers.

“You would not believe the support we’ve received from the community,” she said. “To have people getting invested and understanding and kind of rethinking their green spaces has been so incredible.”

Harris responded to a question from a listener on Twitter during the show, right along those lines:

“If people come out and actually spend time in the prairies with us and witness the activity and the flurry of life that’s happening, you kind of start to connect with it,” she said.

“And something happens inside of you, and you kind of no longer prioritize just pure aesthetics. You recognize the life-sustaining benefits that radiate out of the prairie, that sustain both humans and wildlife. … If you spend time out there, it is, in fact, gorgeous.”

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Evie Hemphill / St. Louis Public Radio
Leigh Harris, a resident of Tower Grove South, launched Pop Up Prairie with her brother in 2015.

So far, Pop Up Prairie has converted public green space to prairie in two city spots: McDonald Park and Tilles Park.

In Tilles Park, the work is ongoing.

“We’re phasing out the turf grass, and that takes an entire year,” Jeff Harris explained. “This fall we’re going to put down the seed mix … and so those will actually germinate next spring.”

The next big project the Harris siblings have their eyes on is North Riverfront Park.

“The park is essentially in the floodplain of the river, so we’re looking at a different species mix up there, perhaps using shrubs like buttonbush and silky dogwood, also known as swamp dogwood, that are more tolerant of being inundated by water than prairie grasses and forbs [wildflowers] are,” Jeff Harris said.

In conversation with host Sarah Fenske, the Harris siblings delved into their efforts and also touched on the important roles prairies play in the ecosystem.

Jeff Harris noted that turf grass requires a lot of energy and investment, from fertilizers to irrigation to regular mowing.

“These native habitats like prairies don’t require any of those inputs, so you can save money, [and] you can improve resiliency in the urban environment,” he said. “And climate change is an issue moving forward — it’s throwing a lot of curveballs at us.”

Related Event
What: Beers for Butterflies Music Festival
When: Noon to sundown Oct. 2
Where: 4200 Utah St., St. Louis, MO 63116
The event is free and open to the public.

Pop Up Prairie’s Big Plans For St. Louis Green Space
Listen as host Sarah Fenske talks with the founders of the local nonprofit.
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St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Evie is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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