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Modern Pioneers Celebrate 35 Years of Restoring Prairie

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"A lot of what motivated people, is so much is gone."

The prairie that attracted homesteaders had all but disappeared in much of Nebraska, when Bill and Jan Whitney set out in 1980 to restore native grassland, before it faded into history.

"To have some remnants to understand how soils were formed," Executive Director Bill Whitney explained.

They founded the Prairie Plains Resource Institute "as sort of a field lab."

Three and a half decades after the started, they maintain seven properties, and hope to add another, with a goal of restoration.

Whitney said, "It's difficult because it takes prairie a long time to develop roots and grow and get rid of weed plants."

Bill says many are surprised to discover what prairie really is. It's not fields of corn and soybeans, and many don't realize how much farming changed the land. But agriculture can still be viable on native grasses.

"It's a sustainable livestock resource," Whitney said. "You can have wildlife and have prairie plant life and use it in ranching."

It's the busy season in the greenhouse at PPRI's Griffith Prairie near Marquette, where they work with hundreds of plant species. Some they sell to help fund the non-profit work, and last year they planted their 10,000th acre.

Sarah Bailey said they plant a number of things."Anything from wetland plants to upland plants for prairie restoration," she said.

Bill says prairie is highly diverse and adaptable to changes in climate, plus promotes wildlife and prevents erosion. The Whitneys consider prairie seeds a genetic resource, sown for the future.

Bill said, "We do believe it's important to save these areas. There might be something before useful in the future because of this."

They are headquartered in Aurora, where they officially started on April 29, 1980.

The Hamilton County seat has a lot going for it – a billion dollar farm co-op and a large telecommunications company are based in the community. Plus, there are new homes and parks to go with a historic courthouse square.

It's also headquarters to the Prairie Plains Resource Institute, celebrating a milestone on the prairie.

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