The Roots of Prairie Restoration in the Midwest

Curtis Prairie

Curtis Prairie looking west toward the Aldo Leopold Memorial Forest, as it appeared in the spring of 2010.


This is the first chapter in a serial history of the origins of prairie restoration in the upper-midwestern United States.  New  episodes will appear in this space over the next few months.

This chapter begins the story of one of the earliest prairie restoration projects–at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum and of some of the people who started the project and did the pioneering work.  Another prairie planting project was getting started at just the same time near Baraboo, Wisconsin–that story will be saved for later.

The Narrative

We will trace the Arboretum experience from the early years to its 75th birthday in 2010; trace the implementation of the project, highlight some of the experimentation; examine questions generated by the restoration process; and give examples of knowledge and innovation generated by the prairie restoration.  The story also involves modern-day monitoring and management plans, contributions to research, followed up with an evaluation of how the prairie and the restoration project have turned out after 75 years.

Important of the Project

The Arboretum project not only established prairies but it also generated knowledge. Thus the narrative of Curtis Prairie is significant in a couple of regards: First, it is a journey of self-discovery; a realization of what the project was, and is about, and a tale of the evolution of the project’s purpose and potential. Secondly, the Arboretum restorations developed fundamental theoretical and practical principles of restoration ecology in general, and prairie restoration in particular. The prairie restoration at the Arboretum has, from the start, stimulated practical and applied research—today what we would call adaptive management—on topics such as fire, germination requirements of prairie species and techniques used to get the prairie species established; as well as studies on the composition and functioning of prairies in Wisconsin, and changes in prairies over time.  As such, the Arboretum project was a pilot project for the linkage between theory and practice.

You Want Me to Do What?

Ted Sperry, a newly-minted doctoral student of Arthur Vestal’s from the University of Illinois, arrived in Madison, Wisconsin in the winter of 1936 to take on his first big job—supervising a new prairie planting project at the University.   His job was, in the words of his recruiter and boss, Aldo Leopold— “to go plant a prairie.”

“Go plant a prairie”: It sounded simple but proved to be anything but.

The Work

At the time Sperry started work at the University Arboretum, this kind of task had not been attempted before and Sperry would be among the first anywhere to attempt a restoration at this scale. Leopold’s charge raised a number of practical and theoretical questions that ecologists were only just beginning to ask and did not yet have the answers for: Can a new prairie be planted? If it can, how does one go about it—seeds or plants or prairie sod or prairie hay? How are prairies managed and maintained?

Even more fundamentally, what is a prairie exactly?  What species is it composed of? Are there different kinds of prairie? How do prairies function?

These and other questions emerged gradually and in sequence as the prairie-planting project at the UW-Madison Arboretum got underway. What they were doing at the Arboretum—and what others were undertaking at the same time about 60 miles up the road near Baraboo, WI in the sand barrens along the Wisconsin River—was not yet called restoration; that term, understanding, and discovery would come later.

The First Plantings

Although Ted Sperry did not make the very first plantings at the Arboretum he left an enduring imprint on the Arboretum and prairie restoration. The distinction of making first plantings belongs to two other prairie pioneers, UW-Madison Professor Norman Fassett, and his student John Thomson—who would become an accomplished UW–Madison Professor of Botany in his own right—made the first prairie plantings in 1934.   They were later joined in the effort by the young Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) supervisor Theodore M. Sperry. Together, these three were responsible for the initial planting of Curtis Prairie, the first restoration attempted at the Arboretum, and among the first restorations of any kind anywhere in the world.

The work of these scientists and practitioners, which was literally and figuratively groundbreaking, laid down a fertile path that resulted in the emergence of not only the UW-Madison Arboretum’s John T. Curtis Prairie, the world’s oldest restored ecosystem, but also the practice of ecological restoration. This achievement places them among the pioneers of the discipline and makes their story an important chapter in the history of restoration ecology.

Early Years

Curtis Prairie was planted on a 60-acre former prairie, turned horse pasture. The site of the future prairie was dominated by bluegrass (Poa sp.) and other ruderal species such as dandelion (Taraxacum species), both of which persist to this day.

Glacial Park, McHenry County Conservation District, Illinois

In 2010 the McHenry County (Illinois) Conservation District (MCCD) hosted the Grassland Restoration Restoration Network’s annual meeting. Pictured here is one  of the field trips. 

The Curtis Prairie site was chosen because it was available, had good soils, and was close to headquarters and the workforce. The site also took advantage of its proximity to existing roads and footpaths so little was required to establish circulation infrastructure.

From 1935 to 1939, a CCC camp was based at the Arboretum, and its 300 male enrollees, under the supervision of Sperry, continued the plantings and experimentations. Although plant introductions were discontinued during World War II, they were resumed around 1950 under the direction of Grant Cottam and David Archbald, who used seed mixtures and various planting methods, including burning before seeding, disking after seeding, and mulching with prairie hay (Cottam and Wilson 1966).

At the time the Arboretum’s first restoration project was initiated, virtually nothing was known about establishing prairie. There were no planting guidebooks to serve as references and no species lists to consult.   Neither were there local restoration experts to offer advice nor native plant nurseries from which to purchase plants.   These early restorationists were on their own and had to discover the prairie restoration process as they went.

In the beginning, the restorationists worked without a formal site inventory and analysis—at least in the sense that they did not leave a written record; and they did not create a formal written plan before beginning.  A group of faculty members did the planning, assisted by students and later by members of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). There was little involvement from the general university or the community of greater Madison. In more recent times, planning has been more formal, with input from a variety of stakeholders.

It is important to note that the absence of a formal plan does not mean that the restoration lacked planning. In fact, the early restorationists were excellent ecologists and landscape architects who brought extensive field experience and then modern ecological theory to the task. As you will see below, they used what we would now call an adaptive approach, carefully documented their work, and built research experiments into the project. It is also important to note that these pioneer prairie planters probably did not think of themselves as restoration ecologists or as doing ecological restoration because those terms were not in common use at the time; but restorationists is how we think of them today.

Next Time: Implementation, experimentation and questions generated by the restoration process.


 Blewett, T. 1981. An ordination study of plant species ecology in the Arboretum prairies. Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin PhD thesis.

Blewett, T. and G. Cottam. 1984. “History of the University of Wisconsin Arboretum Prairies.” Transactions of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters 72:130-144.

Cottam, G. 1987 “Community Dynamics on an Artificial Prairie.” In Restoration Ecology: A Synthetic Approach to Ecological Research, edited by W. R. Jordan, 257-270. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Cottam, J.T. and H.C. Wilson. 1966. Community dynamics on an artificial prairie. Ecology. 47, 88-96.

Curtis, J. T. 1956. A prairie continuum in Wisconsin. Ecology. 36. 558-66.

Curtis, J. T. 1959.   The Vegetation of Wisconsin: An Ordination of Plant Communities. Madison, University of Wisconsin Press.

Curtis, J.T. and G. Cottam . 1950. Antibiotic and auto toxic effects in prairie sunflower. Bulletin of the Torrey Botany Club, 77. 187-91.

Curtis, J.T. and M. L. Partch. 1948. Effect of fire on the competition between blue grass and certain prairie plants. The American Midland Naturalist, 39, 437-43.

Greene, H.C. and J. T. Curtis. 1950. Germination studies of Wisconsin prairie plants. Am. Midl. Nat. 43 (1): 186-194.

 Howell. E. and F. Stearns. 1993 The Preservation, Management, and Restoration of Wisconsin Plant Communities: The Influence of John Curtis and His Students, pp. 57-66 IN John T. Curtis, Fifty Years of Wisconsin Plant Ecology, Edited by Fralish, J. S. and R. P. McIntosh, and O. L. Loucks, Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters, Madison, WI.

Kline, V.M. 1985. Response of sweet clover (Meliotus alba) and associated prairie vegetation of seven experimental burning and mowing regimes.   In Proceedings of the 9th North American Prairie Conference. Ed G.K. Clambey and R. H. Pemble, pp. 149-152. Fargo: Tri-College Press.

 Kline, Virginia M. 1993. John Curtis and the University of Wisconsin Arboretum, pp. 51-56 IN John T. Curtis, Fifty Years of Wisconsin Plant Ecology, Edited by Fralish, J. S. and R.P.McIntosh, and O. L. Loucks. Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters. Madison, WI.

Kline, V.M. and E.A. Howell. 1987. Prairies, pages 75-84. IN Restoration  M.E.Gilpin, and J.D.Aber, editors. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Kline, V. M. 1992. “The Long-Range Management Plan for Arboretum Ecological Communities.” University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum.

Longenecker, W. G. 1941. University of Wisconsin Arboretum. Parks & Recreation Sept.: 1-8.

McGaw, M. 2002. “The Response of Gray Dogwood (Cornus racemosa) to Prescribed Fire and the Effects of Invasion on Fuel Loading and Plant Community Composition at Curtis Prairie.” Master’s thesis. University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Peters, R. H. 1985 Global climate change: a challenge for restoration ecology. Restoration and Management Notes, 3, 62-67.

Sasche, N. D. 1974. “A Thousand Ages: The University of Wisconsin Arboretum.” Madison: Regents of the University of Wisconsin. Revised edition, originally published in 1965.

Snyder, T. A., III. 2004. “A Spatial Analysis of Grassland Species Richness in Curtis Prairie.” Master’s thesis University of Wisconsin Madison.

Sperry. T. M. 1984. Analysis of the University of Wisconsin-Madison prairie restoration project. In Proceedings of the 8th North American Prairie Conference. Ed. R. Brewer, pp140-147. Kalamazoo:   Western Michigan University.

Sperry, T. M. 1990. “Report on the 1980 Curtis Prairie Survey for the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum.” University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum.

Wegner, M. and J . Zedler. 2008. “Taking Stock: Status Report on our 75th Anniversary.” Arboretum Leaflets No. 18.

Wegner, M., P. Zedler, B. Herrick, and J. Zedler. 2008. “Curtis Prairie: 75-Year Old Restoration Research Site.” Arboretum Leaflets No. 16.




About Steve Glass

The blogger is a restoration ecologist, Certified Ecological Restoration Practitioner (#0093 SER) and writer living in the Midwestern United States.
This entry was posted in Curtis Prairie, Ecological restoration, Prairie restoration, Restoration ecology, Roots of restoration ecology and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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