Harris Prairie marks a new trail to visit

Green Earth Inc. is a not-for-profit land conservation organization with a mission to preserve natural areas for the benefit of the people of Carbondale.

According to its website, Green Earth owns and maintains six natural areas, totaling 220 acres, with nine miles of hiking trails.

Recently, however, Green Earth added a seventh site: the Harris Prairie, on the Northwest side of Carbondale, just off New Era Road.

The late Dr. Stan Harris, Jr. was a professor of geology at SIUC, an avid birdwatcher, and an all-around outdoor and nature enthusiast. Dr. Harris was also a longtime Green Earth Board member.

As an aside, I first met and then got to know Dr. Harris at Golds Gym in Carbondale around 2012. He was 94 years old at the time, and I was his personal trainer. We worked together for several months. As such, I can attest to Dr. Harris' energy and zest for life!

Around 2000, Dr. Harris began efforts to convert an old pasture adjacent to his residence to prairie habitat with limited success. Then, in 2008, with the help of Rob Rothrock, a local expert in native prairie plant restoration, a second seeding effort proved much more successful.

When Dr. Harris passed in 2020, the 3.5-acre property was gifted to Green Earth, and the old pasture, now the Harris Prairie, was just recently opened to the public.

The Green Earth folks have added a two-car parking lot and there is a mowed walking trail loop. The adjacent woodland is also being cleared of invasive plants, and the trail will be rerouted into the woods this winter. There are also plans to add benches and informational signs.

I first noticed the Harris Prairie property in early August when I was driving to the Hickory Ridge Golf Course (to meet with Trey Anderson to discuss a prairie planting at the golf course!).

The next week, I met with Rob Rothrock at the Harris Prairie site, and we walked the trail and talked.

Rob was quick to point out that the mix of prairie plants growing at the site is not a tallgrass prairie, per se, which would be predominantly tall grasses, like big bluestem. Rather, the site was replanted with an assortment of broad-leaved flowering plants in 2008, which are what dominate the site today, with small patches of bluestem likely remnants of the first planting in 2000.

When I visited with Rob, sweet black-eyed Susan, ironweed, rosinweed and a beautiful native hibiscus were the stars of the show. Needless to say, the prairie planting was also alive with bees and butterflies. And black-and-yellow American Goldfinches flying about added even more color to the scene.

The flower/pollinator/bird show will be going on for a few more weeks, at least, with different plants coming into flower. And the site should be a good place to observe migrating monarch butterflies. So, make the drive or ride your bike to the Harris Prairie and pay tribute to Dr. Harris by enjoying the flowers and maybe even doing some bird watching.

• Michael Eric Baltz writes about the changing world from his home in Carbondale.

Sweet black-eyed Susan at the Harris Prairie
Rosinweed at the Harris Prairie
Hairy-fruited hibiscus at the Harris Prairie