Texas

These days, many of his primary clientele are "urban refugees," said Dr. Jim Muir, forage ecologist with the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station.

"That's what I call them--the people who buy (farm) land and don't have an interest in making money on the land," said Muir, who is based at the Texas A&M University System Agricultural Research and Extension Center at Stephenville.

To serve this new clientele, Muir is one of the project leaders of the newly formed North Texas Ecotype Project.

As with South Texas Natives, a similar project in southern Texas, the goal is to collect, select and make possible the commercialization of locally adapted native legumes and grasses.

"The end products of these two projects will permit the sale of locally adapted native seeds for re-vegetation of degraded range sites," Muir said, "and will for the first time provide land managers the option of a greater variety of true native seeds to plant."

Many traditional farmers have been conscious of the need for preservation of native species, but the influx of urban refugees has increased the demand, Muir said. The new arrivals to country life buy land to escape the brouhaha of urban life. Recreation issues top their list, not making money on the land, he said.

"They are more often concerned with restoring native flora and fauna to benefit both wildlife and small livestock operations such as sheep and goats," Muir said.

That's not to say that traditional farmers and ranchers aren't aware of environmental issues, Muir said. But the livelihood of traditional farmers and ranchers depends upon the land cash-flowing.

With rangeland, for example, the long-standing practice has been to reseed or sprig rangeland in exotic, improved grasses and legumes, such as Bermuda grass and ryegrass, to increase forage for livestock operations. Many of the native grasses and legumes have become refugees themselves in the face of these forage mono-cultures. Urban refugees find the native legumes and grasses visually interesting and more in tune with native wildlife. And they are well adapted to the climate and soils, he said.

Once re-established, the native species promise to require less management--little to no fertilizer, for example--in contrast to Bermuda grass and other exotic transplants which require a high level of management, Muir said.

"Both these new landowners and the traditional rancher face a paucity of species diversity as they launch practices aimed at increasing rangeland bio-diversity," Muir said.

Muir and project co-leader, Dr. William Ocumpaugh, forage researcher at Experiment Station at Beeville, have a number of obstacles to overcome, Muir said.

The primary obstacles are seed harvesting and dormancy. Experts are uncertain whether conventional commercial-sized seed conditioning equipment, such as gravity tables and seed-coating machines, will work with seed of native species.

Financed by grants totaling more than $200,000, Muir, Ocumpaugh and the rest of the team expect to answer these questions and overcome these obstacles in the next couple of years. Both grants came from private, non-profit organizations; the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and the Joe Skeen Institute for Rangeland Restoration.

Part of the grant funds were used to hire Lauri Heintz as coordinator of the project. Heintz's goals are threefold. Heintz will be collecting seed and documenting sites where native prairie species can be found. She will also build a website as a clearing house for landowners wishing to find information and seed stock for native prairie reclamation.

Heintz also is planning a demonstration field day in Denton County for this fall. The demonstration site will compare different seeding rates of native species, effects of prescribed burning on reclamation efforts, use of native species in reclaiming land taken over by scrub cedar and other undesirable species, and results from no-till seeding native species compared to other types of propagation.

Whether the demonstration field day comes to fruition depends upon the drought, she said.

From the beginning the lack of rainfall has hindered her efforts. Though native plants will flower under dry conditions, they will not produce viable seed. Despite the drought, Heintz and her co-collectors have accumulated collections from more than 60 sites.

And there's also the problem of locating existing plots of native species. Currently, she and other partners in the project, such as Mike Miller, biologist with Texas Parks and Wildlife, have been relying on contact lists and tips from Texas Cooperative Extension agents. It's sort of a hit-and-miss process, with many sites probably remaining unknown, Heintz said.

Heintz hopes that once they become aware of the project, more landowners will come forward with information on potential sites. She has a cell phone account dedicated to the project: 254-368-5452.

Why is it in the landowner's interest to contact Heintz about native grass and legume remnants? The answers are a potential for profit to the landowner and a share in protecting such vital resources for the future, she said.

By helping to improve native legumes and other prairie remnants, landowners will insure they also have native seed to restore prairie land, she said.

"We want to save what they have for the future," she said. "Some seed may be used to grow seed stock; some sent to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Plant Materials Center at Knox City for preservation."

There's also the potential--if the landowner is interested--to make extra income from the sale of seed hay, she said. 'seed hay' is mature hay with live seed. Because of the difficulties in harvesting and handling the seed of many native grasses, seed hay is spread over a prepared seed bed and then either packed or lightly disked.

Heintz said that her seed-collecting visits are non-invasive and that landowner's rights and privacy are always respected. She urged landowners to call if they only remotely suspect they have native species.

"Even if the land is choked full of cedar and broomweed, we'd still like to talk to them," she said.

Muir emphasized that the project is not just for "urban refugees," but for all land managers.

"The end products of these two projects will permit the sale of locally adapted native seeds for re-vegetation of degraded range sites, prairie restoration, conservation resource-planning land and public right-of-ways," Muir said.

"For the first time, we will be able to provide land managers the option of having quality, true native seeds to plant."

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