Thursday, April 29, 2010
Fires restore native grasses, wildlife
By SUE WATSON
Tom and Jane Heineke and lots of their neighbors recently took off several hundred acres of grass and brush in a controlled burn. It is designed to restore native grass habitats to the Coldwater River headwaters near Hudsonville.
Nine landowners, working in partnership with Strawberry Plains Audubon under a Toyota TogetherGreen grant, are building a community of conservationists in the area. They will re-seed with indigenous grasses and wildflowers that thrive in the area and also support indigenous wildlife like quail.
“Property owners are doing it all together; the controlled burn was all planned out,” said Bubba Hubbard, executive director of Strawberry Plains Audubon.
He said the burn over will remove dead Bermuda grass that was killed by herbicides last fall. The Bermuda was originally planted for cattle farming but produces a thatch too thick for young quail chicks to get under to forage for bugs and worms.
In other words, the Bermuda is not useful to quail and other grassland wildlife species.
Two one-year grants and an expected third one are helping with the partnership, which involves about 500 acres of land that will be re-planted in native grass species that support native species of birds, some threatened by traditional agricultural methods that brought Bermuda to the area. The Bermuda was used to support cattle farming which is on the decline on some of the farms, as newcomers find the area an attractive place to live and practice conservation. The practices are hoped to support quail populations and hunting, as well as keep silt and erosion from contaminating the headwaters of the Coldwater River.
The Heinekes also support Strawberry Plains, Hubbard said. The interest in conservation is really unusual in the Hudsonville area, he said.
“And we appreciate each other for that,” Hubbard said. “The Coldwater River Watershed Initiative is definitely a part of this.”
Tom Heineke, a botanist trained at the Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Ill., and his wife Jane moved to Hudsonville in 2005. They had operated a private business with the City of Memphis, Tenn., as one of their customers. Heineke & Associates Inc. was hired to identify all the plant species in Overton Park, one of the most significant parks in Memphis.
Heineke sold his company after 16 years, and prior to that, worked 10 years with the U.S. Corps of Engineers in Memphis.
Participating in the back-to-nature movement in Hudsonville is just natural for them.
“Jane and I were looking for a property within 100 miles of Memphis for four or five years and we saw a little classified ad for this property in the Commercial Appeal,” he said. “We said, ‘What the heck. We’ll look at it.’ ”
Their soon-to-be 289-acre spread had a termite-riddled old farm house on it. They decided not to try to restore it and bought the land in 2003 and designed their own home. The next year the Heinekes visited Strawberry Plains Audubon Center’s wildflower sale where they met a future neighbor and friend of nature, Suzanne Langley.
But Kristin Lamberson, interpretive gardens specialist at Strawberry Plains, seemed to be the mastermind behind the whole initiative, Heineke said.
“Kristin was aware we were here and Suzanne came to work for Strawberry Plains and was talked into buying some of the land,” he said.
Chad Pope, ecologist at Strawberry Plains Audubon, also bought property adjacent to the Heinekes. Shannon and Amanda McGee bought about 100 acres down the road adjacent to Langley property. Mike Boone and his wife, Wanda Hairston, bought his family’s home on Hudsonville Road.
“And Ronnie and Harriett Caldwell preceded all of us,” Heineke said. “It was one person after the other.”
In fact, the entire tract of land now owned by the Heinekes and Caldwells was in the hands of Dick Sanders. It was Ronnie Caldwell who talked him into selling some of the property.
“Then we saw the ad in the paper,” he said.
There’s one common thread which binds the little community together.
“We all share a really strong affinity for restoring the land and protecting the land and admiring what was here and what is here,” Heineke said.
The Toyota grant includes repairing some erosional features on the lands and the property owners share ideas, equipment and labor, he said.
“We help each other with breaking gardens and all sorts of things,” he said. “I always, in the back of my mind, wanted something like this, but I never expected it to happen. I love the quality of the ecology and the rolling hills. It still boggles my mind, all these people coming together.”
Ronnie and Harriett Caldwell moved to Hudsonville from Mt. Pleasant nine years ago to enlarge their holdings to range and train their Paso Fino horses. They bought the land from Dick Sanders, who they knew from Slayden Baptist Church.
“Suzanne and others started buying and moving and it has evolved into quite a ‘green-minded’ community,” he said. “Call it fate or the proximity to the Coldwater River, Audubon, the national forest or whatever, it is a wonderful ‘raw’ - one of the most beautiful places in Mississippi. Our neighbors, the Hollands, and others already had in place the beginnings. What we have done is simply gotten in touch with each other and communicated our desire to have an environmentally clean community.”
Strawberry Plains has been the source of information and inspiration for the partnership.
“It’s enormous how it helps to have that facility there,” Heineke said, “because all those people are like-minded, very helpful and I can’t say enough good things about them.
“Kristin Lamberson had land out there and she was the center or reason or driving force holding it together here.”
Since being on the land, Heineke said he is listing all the plant species he sees in the Hudsonville area and records what he encounters, including mammals, fish, birds, reptiles and amphibians, as well as plants.
He works with Mississippi State University occasionally since he found four different threatened plant species.
Heineke took a job with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in New Orleans after graduating with a PhD, made friends working with the U.S. Corps of Engineers in Vicksburg, then took a job with the Corps in Memphis.
“That’s how I got here,” he said. “Jane is an English education teacher and librarian and worked 16 years with my company.”
Lamberson was singled out for recognition by Audubon for her work with the TogetherGreen project. In November 2009, Lamberson was awarded a national fellowship to continue to provide leadership for those interested in environmental projects. She was one of 40 people nationwide chosen as a 2009 TogetherGreen Fellow last year.
The Fellowship provides $10,000 towards a community-focused project to engage a group of residents in conserving land, water, and energy to improve environmental health. The award will be used to enlarge an interpretive garden already in place at Strawberry Plains.
Lamberson said her role in the TogetherGreen project was to find other parties who would be interested in protecting the Coldwater River Watershed and putting in conservation practices to support restoration of wildlife, particularly bird populations.
“The partnerships involved getting people together to buy land who are like-minded,” she said.
At the Audubon Center native plants, particularly nectar-producing species, have been established on the grounds to support the annual ruby-throated hummingbird migration and to attract and sustain butterflies. Lamberson has landscaped the grounds at the center for that purpose and also maintains a plant nursery where native species are propagated for sale to visitors.
Caldwell, who works for the City of Bartlett, loves this country and wants to protect it from “flight from the city” type dwellers and was looking for peace and quiet.
Pope, with Strawberry Plains eight years and a product of Tupelo, has purchased 25 acres and partners in the TogetherGreen program. He helps to get landowners’ work done because of his expertise in ecology.
“We do burns across property lines looking at habitats - grassland complexes go across multiple properties,” he said.
In the immediate area of Hudsonville about 700 acres are in the TogetherGreen project. Pope also works with others in the Coldwater River Watershed project. All totaled, there are about 3,000 acres of private land and about 2,000 acres that includes Strawberry Plains in the TogetherGreen and Coldwater River Watershed project, he said.
“I don’t know how to explain it,” Pope said of the success of the Hudsonville effort. “It started with a couple of conservation-minded people moving to the area, then others started moving here who are interested in conservation of wildlife. We’ve been fortunate at Audubon to assist landowners financially.”
Some conservation practices include putting riparian buffers to stop erosion near ditches, creeks and streams, building early successional grasslands and restoring old pasture lands by planting native species of grasses and wildflowers, Pope said.
“With the burns, we’ve been fortunate to have the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks assisting us with burns and with landowner consultations,” he said.
Although quail serves as the posterchild for the species to be expanded, Pope said from an Audubon perspective, other grassland species of birds are hoped to come back if enough acreage is put together.
“Statewide they have shown that populations do respond when we repair habitats,” he said.
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