The ghosts of grasslands past

Alabama prairie restoration protects disappearing ecosystems

by Sydney Cromwell

Miles and miles of untouched forests sound like a conservationist’s dream. But historically, Alabama wasn’t covered by trees. It was prairies.

Before widespread settlement of Alabama in the mid-1800s, about half of the state was covered mainly by tall grasses, according to the Southeastern Grasslands Initiative (SGI). Much of the Southeast was originally prairie land, but SGI estimates more than 90% of it has been lost.

Acres of grasslands disappeared under farmers’ tillers and developers’ bulldozers. Other prairies were blotted out when forests of trees, no longer kept in check by regular wildfires, grew between the tall grasses and the sun.

Alabama’s prairies have almost vanished. Many residents never even knew they were there.

And yet, traces are still visible if you have a keen eye.

Hartselle resident Kyle Lybarger, the creator of the Native Habitat Project, has found patches of grassland habitats in his neighborhood, along highways and in cattle pastures.

“They all have the same story. Nobody’s paying attention to them or even knows that they’re there or seems to care that they’re there,” Lybarger said.


Alabama’s original grasslands were a patchwork across the state, with distinct regions and soil types playing host to a variety of prairies, savannas, glades, barrens, bogs and meadows.

In North Alabama, pine savannas were covered with tall grass species and dotted by longleaf and shortleaf pines, while on the Gulf Coast the grasses and pines flourished in wetlands. The shallow, rocky soils of limestone glades in Central Alabama allowed only the hardiest of grasses and the occasional tree to survive. And the famously fertile soil of the Black Belt, home to so much of the state’s agriculture, was originally covered by miles of wild grasses and flowers.

“People drive by these things all the time. A lot of times they are on the sides of the roads, they exist as roadside remnants, and nobody knows they’re there,” said Zach Irick, an ecologist for the SGI based out of Chattanooga, Tennessee 

Irick said the fact that these grasslands are “the easiest thing to remove from the landscape” is part of why people don’t seem concerned when they are replaced by development.

The remnants are still home to stunning levels of biodiversity, which have helped earn the Southeast international recognition. And yet, the animals and plants that depend on the grasslands — including hundreds of bird, insect, reptile and mammal species — have seen their populations decline as those ecosystems have shrunk, Lybarger said. 

“We’ve just allowed everything to grow up and turn into forests and therefore some of these species are getting really hard to find. And our open areas are becoming neighborhoods and agricultural areas,” he said.

Some of those species are endangered or have no other home except Alabama:

  • In the Coosa Valley prairies of Cherokee and Etowah counties, Irick said, you can spot rarities like barbed rattlesnakeroot, whorled sunflower and the Alabama leather flower. This type of prairie used to cover thousands of acres, but now exists in only a few scattered sites.
  • Bibb County’s Ketona Glade is home to eight plant species found nowhere else. 
  • Prairie Grove Glade Preserve, a cedar glade in Lawrence County, boasts 12 rare and endangered plant species, most notably a yellow-flowered plant called the lyrate bladderpod that exists only in three locations, all in Alabama.
  • In the sandstone-dominated grasslands of Little River Canyon and Chitwood Barrens, you can find rare flora like the green pitcher plant, longleaf sunflower and rose gentian.
  • Old Cahawba and other Black Belt prairies are habitats not only for a wealth of uncommon plants (the white lady’s-slipper, celestial lily and Old Cahawba rosinweed being just a few examples), but also northern bobwhites, loggerhead shrikes and other prairie-dependent birds.
  • A small bird with a gray back and head, white belly, and black stripes on its eyes and wingtips perches on a branch against a clear sky.
  • A group of around eight to ten pitcher plants, which are tall and cylindrical with a veined leaf overhanging the mouth of the pitcher, with other brush in the background.
  • A close-up of a light purple flower with six petals, and a yellow and white center.
  • A tall plant with small white and yellow flowers in a field. A moth is landing on one of the flowers.
  • A small, squat ground bird, with feathers that are a blend of many shades of brown, black and white. It stands in front of an evergreen shrub.
  • A close-up of tiny yellow-petaled flowers on long green stems with few leaves.
  • A low-growing green plant dominates the image, with rocky soil surrounding it. The flowers are tall, purple cylinders, with many tiny petals in all directions.
  • Three white flowers, each with a bulbous shape hanging downward from the stem of the plant, are viewed in close-up amid other grass species.
  • A stand of tall, leafy plants with many small yellow flowers, next to a tree.
  • A horned bison stands in the center of the image, flicking its tail. The bison is knee deep in grass and wildflowers, which continue behind it to a hill with a couple scattered trees. Farther in the background, a denser forest is visible.

“These are ecosystems that used to be the dominant ecosystem in the state and now they’re extremely hard to find, and the fact that they’re being lost seems to raise no red flags to anyone,” Lybarger said.

It’s more than a species conservation issue, he said. Tall, deep-rooted grasses are more effective than mowed grasses — and certainly more so than hard surfaces like asphalt and concrete — at trapping carbon, filtering stormwater and keeping the soil cool, Lybarger said.

“It’s really backwards. I don’t think it’s the average person’s fault. I think they don’t stop to think about what they’re doing,” Lybarger said.


For many years, Lybarger was among the Alabamians who were unaware of their state’s prairie past life.

Though he was always interested in wildlife and plants, he failed his first college botany class.

“In my defense, we didn’t step outside a single time in that class,” Lybarger said.

After that, he went to Alabama A & M to study forestry, where he said he learned a lot about tree identification and farming, but there was no discussion of native grasses and habitats.

After he graduated in 2017, Lybarger said he started to get more interested in native species and was managing a property with plant species he had never seen before.

“At the time I didn’t know it, but it was a limestone glade,” Lybarger said.

After his father’s death, he decided to become a private forester and spent “sunup to sundown every day outdoors, trying to learn everything I could.”

“I kind of became obsessed with learning about habitats and native ecosystems, and what was growing there and what those forests needed,” he said.

A field of deep, tall grasses with around ten trees, some mature, some young, planted several feet apart from each other. Denser forest and shrubs can be seen in the background.
A prairie in Alabama’s Black Belt. Some tree species thrive in grasslands, but they must have enough space between them that sunlight can still reach the grasses below. Photo courtesy of Kyle Lybarger.

Lybarger decided he wanted to work with landowners to manage native ecosystems in ways that were both profitable for the owners and healthy for the habitats. In spring 2020, he and his wife started a backyard nursery of native plants, with seeds from about 75 grass and wildflower species, for people to use in habitat restorations.

As his own eyes were being opened, Lybarger said he began to see how many people, from landscapers and forest managers to regular homeowners, had no idea how to recognize or properly care for ecosystems they had never heard of.

“I realized there was just a huge lack of education from every aspect,” he said. “… It was kind of eye opening to see how little people knew about our native ecosystems.”

The Native Habitat Project started with educational videos and TikToks, where Lybarger shared his newfound knowledge. But it has since expanded to much more.


Since so few people know about these vanished prairies, even fewer are working to restore them or protect their remnants.

“They’re not really getting conserved, they’re not getting the funding for that type of work,” Irick said.

The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ Wildlife Action Plan includes some assessment and restoration projects for grasslands. The Nature Conservancy also includes several prairies, glades and savannas among its protected lands in Alabama.

Irick said SGI’s work in Alabama is concentrated on places like the Coosa Valley prairies in northeastern Alabama, Little River Canyon and the Black Belt grasslands. SGI tries to find and acquire prairie remnants, but so far they haven’t been able to buy any pieces of Coosa Valley prairie in Alabama, and only one in Georgia, Irick said.

“A lot of times the landowners don’t really want to sell,” he said, though there are remnants in Alabama that are “definitely worthy of protection.”

Because of the lack of education, Irick said he tries to lead field trips to some of these locations. SGI also works with private property owners to create plant inventories and seed banks, so they can understand what species currently exist and create a safeguard in case a prairie remnant is destroyed.

Rather than purchasing land to preserve, Lybarger and Jake Brown, the other half of the Native Habitat Project team, tend to work with landowners to encourage better management and restoration of their properties.

As he travels around the state to consult with property owners and manage native ecosystems, Lybarger said you never can tell where you might discover something really special. Land that can’t be developed, such as roadsides and power line rights-of-way, often hold the last scraps of grasslands that used to cover acres.

Purple-petaled flowers with black centers stand in the midst of a narrow strip of tall grasses. On the left side is a two-lane road. To the right is a forest of conifer trees.
Grassland remnants are often found on roadsides, power line rights-of-way and other pieces of land that are unable to be developed. Here, a stand of wavy-leaf purple coneflower and other native grass species live under a power line beside a roadway. Photo by Dwayne Estes, courtesy of Southeastern Grassland Initiative.

He found Porter’s goldenrod, a rare flower found in only four locations, on an undeveloped lot down the road from his house. He’s spotted five rare milkweed species in the course of his work, including purple milkweed, which had never before been seen in Alabama.

“It was such a showy plant and hard-to-miss plant. It was in a savanna remnant that I discovered,” Lybarger said.

In north Alabama, he uncovered two sites with a previously unknown habitat: the Hartselle sandstone barren.

“That was a really rare ecosystem. It was literally an undescribed ecosystem,” he said.

In the middle of Decatur, he spotted about 20 acres of another uncommon habitat called Little Mountain prairie barrens. Lybarger said it’s “probably the most diverse prairie remnant” he has seen in his work, with eye-catching plants like the bright purple flowers of Gattinger’s clover.

Lybarger is now working with the owner of that land to add more acreage to the prairie and let in more sunlight, so the native plants can take root.

“It’s just a really cool and impressive site, and the landowner a year ago had no idea what they had,” he said. “… Those are my favorite kind of restoration, where you bring some sunlight in and it comes back on its own.”

Lybarger said he has talked with hundreds of landowners over the years. While there are always some holdouts, he said many people warm to the idea of working with, rather than against, the original habitats on their land.

“I’ve seen them go from not caring at all to really caring about it. And it usually comes from them having to see things for themselves,” he said. “… I feel like people need to see these things and how unique these ecosystems are.”

There’s still plenty of education to be done, especially for people who are surprised by some of his tools of choice: controlled burns, cutting down trees and even herbicides.

While it sounds counterintuitive, Lybarger said these methods are needed to get rid of invasive or encroaching species that are preventing the grasslands from flourishing.

“You can use herbicide to do good, just like you can use fire to do good or cut down trees to do good,” he said.


The night-and-day effects of native habitat are hard to miss on Alan Summerford’s farm. Just look for the turkeys.

Summerford, a Falkville resident and cattle farmer, owns a couple of properties for hunting, including one in Pulaski, Tennessee. He planned to harvest some of the trees on that property, but he also wanted something more.

“I was looking to make the most of the timber but at the same time promote the wildlife,” Summerford said.

He was watching a show called “Growing Deer,” trying to find ways to attract more deer and turkeys to his property. When the show introduced him to the idea of managing prairies as hunting grounds, Summerford knew that was the answer. 

“That’s what I want to create. That right there is what I was looking for. I had never even heard the term ‘savanna’ before that show,” he said.

Summerford found Lybarger through his Facebook posts on native wildflower species and invited him out to the Pulaski property. The pair created a plan of selective tree cutting and controlled burns to restore the natural environment on the property.

A small line of fire is in the low center of the photograph, with charred ground in front of it. The land is covered with brown, dry grass and some trees.
A controlled burn as part of native savanna restoration. Many grasses and other prairie species benefit from regular burns, which can remove invasive plants from the prairies. Photo courtesy of Alan Summerford.

The wild turkeys were the first to respond. Summerford said he used to see turkeys on the property for just a couple months out of the year, but now they’re there year-round, mostly in the area around the restored savanna.

“The turkeys just exploded. I see turkeys on the farm all the time now,” he said.

Summerford believes the restored property provides brooding habitat that was missing before, as well as additional food sources, making it more turkey-friendly. He went from seeing one or two jakes (young male turkeys) on the property each year to an uncountable number.

“Something’s going right for that many jakes to have hatched out and survived,” he said.

A man in a ball cap and camo clothing holds a large male turkey in front of him, which he has shot. In the background are dense trees.
Alan Summerford said the turkey population on his property has “exploded” since he began restoring native savanna habitats. Photo courtesy of Alan Summerford.

The deer have followed suit. Summerford sees them spending the most time in the restored prairie area, and this season his son shot the largest buck they’ve ever seen on that property.

Restoring the native grass species is “the cheapest food source and the best food source for wildlife you can have on your property,” Summerford said.

He also sees his property with new eyes, spotting native plant species he never recognized before.

“The open timber is beautiful, but I left little sections of it that I didn’t touch right next to the savanna, and that creates even more diversity,” he said.

While there’s still work to be done on the Pulaski property, Summerford said he intends to incorporate native grass species and habitat restoration on his other properties as well, including his cattle pastures in Alabama.


Lybarger wants to continue managing properties like Summerford’s, finding new remnants to save and educating through social media. Eventually, he would like to buy properties for conservation and restart his native seed nursery. 

He sees the Native Habitat Project as a first responder, acting quickly when prairies need protection.

“That’s what these ecosystems need. They don’t have time to wait,” he said.

One of Lybarger’s ongoing projects will hold special meaning once it’s complete. Hartselle City Schools, which is where his own children will go to school, purchased a property next to its middle school to build a parking lot.

The property, however, included a Hartselle sandstone barren, and Lybarger has worked with the school system on grant funding to build an outdoor classroom on that portion of the land. He said it will be the only outdoor classroom he’s aware of that’s built on such a rare ecosystem, and it’s “going to be a cool place to educate kids.”

Lybarger will spend the next year removing invasive species, doing controlled burns and mulching at the outdoor classroom to help the native species spread. Future plans for the property include building trails and access to a nearby creek.

“If people don’t do anything, like now, [prairies] are probably not going to exist in the next ten years, probably even five.”

Zach Irick, Southeastern Grasslands Initiative

Irick said the SGI will continue its efforts to acquire and conserve grasslands in Alabama, as well as education. If more people know about these local habitats, “I think we can do a lot of good,” he said.

“If people don’t do anything, like now, [prairies] are probably not going to exist in the next ten years, probably even five,” Irick said.

While not everyone has a rare prairie in their backyard, Lybarger said there are plenty of ways to let native plants thrive. An easy place to start, he said, is learning the species in your landscaping and whether they’re invasive.

“What you plant on your property can spread to areas surrounding your property,” he said.

He said he’d like to see native plants become a more popular choice for landscaping, rather than exotic species that aren’t meant for the local soil and climate.

“In our own landscaping we aren’t showcasing that we’re proud of our states. We aren’t even showcasing plants that grow in our country,” he said. “… I’m the odd one on my street because my whole, entire landscaping is native plants.”

Leaving native grasses unmowed is another tactic Lybarger encourages. He said people might be surprised by the plant and animal species they see by letting just a portion of their yard grow as it naturally would.

If the last of Alabama’s prairies vanish, Lybarger believes a piece of Alabama culture will vanish along with them.

“The amount of things we lose is endless, but most importantly, I think we lose what defines Alabama as Alabama. The natural things that exist in an area define it,” he said.

Irick agreed: “You lose things that are irreplaceable. Once they’re gone, it’s really hard to get them back.”

Main article image of a Hartselle sandstone barren, courtesy of Kyle Lybarger.

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