There were millions of acres of prairie in the Midwest when white settlers arrived in the early 1800s. Today, only a tiny fraction of these native grasslands remain. In recent years, there’s been renewed interest in restoring old prairies and creating new ones. But when financial realities conflict with land protection efforts, even the most devoted prairie lovers must make a difficult choice. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Tom Springer reports:
There were millions of acres of prairie in the Midwest when white settlers arrived in the early
1800s. Today, only a tiny fraction of these native grasslands remain. In recent years, there’s
been renewed interest in restoring old prairies and creating new ones. But when financial realities
conflict with land protection efforts, even the most devoted prairie lovers must make a difficult
choice. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Tom Springer reports:
This is not a sight that Bev Villareal ever wanted to see. On her restored prairie near Plainwell,
Michigan, there’s a dozen men and women armed with shovels and buckets. They’re digging up
native plants by the hundreds and carting them off in a pick-up truck.
Bev Villareal settles into her favorite chair and lights up a Capri Super-Slim cigarette. The scene
from her back window would look familiar to a 19th century pioneer. It’s a real prairie, with
plenty of rare flowers and enough tall grass to fatten a buffalo. But with her chronic lung disease,
Villareal can’t get out much to enjoy it.
“Well, my health has been going down, and I do have some bad habits, health-wise. So I know
that it’s in my will that’s the kids are to sell the farm, so, yeah, because I know this place will be
developed and that’s it.”
Villareal says she bought the farm “for a steal” in the early 1960s. Back then, she spent her days
cooped up in a meat-packing plant. And this was her country retreat. She loved outdoor work.
She built a fieldstone wall with her own hands. And she especially loved to raise flowers. She’d
sell cut daffodils, iris and zinnias from a little table in her driveway.
“I belong to gardening club here in Plainwell, and I always tell them I’m not a gardener, I’m a
Then in 1990, Villareal’s daughter introduced her to Bob Pleznac. At first, they weren’t exactly
kindred spirits. Bev Villareal’s a blue-collar type. She likes flowers because they’re pretty. Bob
Pleznac’s a bankruptcy attorney. He calls plants by their Latin names. And he knows more than
you’ll ever want to hear about prairies. Yet when Pleznac visited Villareal’s land, he saw the
potential for a new kind of natural garden.
“Just looking at the property and seeing what it looked like, and knowing Bev’s love for flowers,
I knew that the prairie plants would love this land and that Bev would love the prairie plants.”
And he was right – Bev loved the idea. When Bev and Bob first planted their prairie, it covered
an area the size of a small house. Today, it spreads across about seven acres of rolling hillside.
On this fall afternoon, clumps of native grass the color of buckskin tremble in the breeze. Dried
stalks of purple, yellow and orange wildflowers linger on as reminders of summer’s glory.
And now, autumn has come for Bev Villareal and her prairie. Neither she nor anyone else she
knows can afford to save it. Once the property’s sold, it will probably sprout quarter-million-
dollar houses instead of black-eyed susans.
But the volunteers out in her backyard are working to see that this prairie survives. Christy
Chapman is with the Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy. She’s pulling out clumps of
wildflowers and stuffing them into a plastic trash bag.
“Yeah, It’s like prairie in a box, we box up something and we might have three or four good
plants all living together and we dig up the plug, put in a bag, cart it down the street and plop it
back in. So it should do real well.”
The volunteers are excited by their work. Yet Bob Pleznac just can’t bring himself to pick up a
shovel. For him, it’s a necessary, but bittersweet undertaking.
“I hate to think about this beauty being paved over, but we’ve got a terrific opportunity now.
This is harvest time. It’s time to get the seed off this prairie, as much as we can, with all the
volunteers that have come in here from the Wild Ones Club and from the Southwest Michigan
Land Conservancy, and we’re going to be able to do with these plants what we set out to do.”
The plants are being moved to the Chipman Preserve. It’s a rolling, 180-acre parcel near
Kalamazoo. It’s owned by the Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy. It doesn’t look like a
prairie yet, but Bev Villareal’s plants will help change that. Nate Fuller is a Conservancy staff
member. In his mind’s eye he can see a prairie here. He also envisions an oak savanna, a wild
grassland dotted with trees.
“Well, here we’re standing on the edge of what is going to be the boundary between our savanna
and prairie. You can see there’s some oaks up here, you might hear the wind going through those
leaves there, there’s some staghorn sumac around, there’s also quite a bit of scotch pine hanging
on, a bunch of black cherries. But mostly it’s pretty open, you can see some rolling landscape,
and we’re gonna keep this pretty open.”
Survey records from the 1800s show that this site was once a prairie. With careful management,
that age-old landscape will return. For Nate Fuller and his transplant crew, the hard part is
knowing when to stop.
“It’s kind of like being a kid in a candy store, with free rein, I tell ya (laughs) there’s so many
neat plants. It’s ‘Oh, we gotta get that one, we gotta get that one, we can’t stop now!’ and
watching all the volunteers go, I’m trying to tell them, ‘The trucks loaded, we gotta go,’ and they
say ‘No, we can’t leave any behind! And it’s ‘will be back, will be back, don’t worry.'”
Some prairie plants can live to be 100 years old. And the lands protected by the Southwest
Michigan Land Conservancy are permanently restricted from development. So the flowers and
grasses from Bev Villareal’s property will be safe here. And at this new address, her prairie
legacy will bloom for generations yet to come.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Tom Springer.