Konza Prairie LTER - History

The primary research site for the Konza Prairie LTER program is the Konza Prairie Biological Station, a 3,487-hectare native tallgrass prairie preserve jointly owned by The Nature Conservancy and Kansas State University and located in the Flint Hills of northeastern Kansas. The Konza Prairie Biological Station was founded in 1971 under the leadership of Professor Lloyd C. Hulbert of Kansas State University, culminating years of dedicated efforts to establish a field station dedicated to ecological research in the tallgrass prairie region. Several adjoining tracts of land in Riley and Geary counties, including the 2,923 hectare historic Dewey Ranch, were purchased between 1971 and 1979 for Kansas State University by The Nature Conservancy with funds provided by Katharine Ordway. The site was named after the Kansa Indians, a Native American tribe that once inhabited the region. The original name was the Konza Prairie Research Natural Area, and it was re-named the Konza Prairie Biological Station in 2000, to better reflect its mission as a biological field station dedicated to research, education and conservation.

Konza Prairie was one of 6 original LTER sites selected by NSF in 1980, and our LTER research program began in 1981, although some datasets extend back further in time as a result of prior data collection. Like all LTER sites, the Konza Prairie LTER program (KNZ) began with research that included the five original LTER “core” areas: (1) patterns and controls of primary production, (2) spatial and temporal dynamics of key populations, (3) patterns and controls of organic matter accumulation in surface layers and sediments, (4) patterns of inorganic input and movements through soils, groundwater, and surface water, and (5) patterns and frequency of disturbances to the system. From its inception, the KNZ program explicitly recognized fire, grazing by large ungulates, and climatic variability as three critical and interactive drivers that determine the structure and function of tallgrass prairies and that are relevant to the LTER core areas. KNZ LTER research incorporated the unique watershed-level prescribed fire treatments that were part of the KPBS site experimental plan. With each successive funding cycle, LTER research goals at Konza Prairie have been refined, refocused and expanded, but the emphasis on fire, grazing and climate together with long-term studies in each of the five core areas have been, and continue to be, a baseline research effort that receives high priority. Below is a brief synopsis of the research themes and key personnel associated with each of the LTER funding cycles.

LTER I (1980-1985). A group of KSU faculty led by G. Richard Marzolf in collaboration with Dean Bark, Lloyd C. Hulbert, Mike Johnson, Robert Robel and John L. Zimmerman was responsible for securing funding for LTER I, and focusing the initial research program on comparative investigations of biotic responses to fire and climatic variability. Long-term research sites and sampling protocols were established during this period with an emphasis on studies of the extremes of annually burned vs. unburned watersheds and upland vs. lowland sites. Many of these research sites and datasets, established at the onset of the KNZ LTER program, have continued as “core” components of our LTER program.

LTER II (1986-1990). During LTER II, Marzolf left KSU and Donald Kaufman and Timothy Seastedt expanded our LTER research efforts to include a wider range of fire frequencies (specifically 4-yr fire cycles) and increased exploration of ecosystem responses. An increased emphasis was placed on soil processes, and new plot-level experiments (e.g., the Belowground Plot Experiment) were initiated. Moreover, as a result of the collaborative NASA funded FIFE (First ISLSCP Field Experiment) program from 1987-1989, LTER researchers began to address more complex questions of scale and make use of remotely-sensed satellite data to explore landscape-level issues.

LTER III (1991-1996). Prior to leaving KSU in 1991, Seastedt provided leadership in defining the research objectives for LTER III. Leadership and administration during LTER III were provided by Alan Knapp and John Briggs, with co-PIs David Hartnett and Don Kaufman serving in advisory roles. LTER III represented a significant expansion of the Konza Prairie LTER program in terms of both research emphasis and scientific investigators. New faculty scientists added during LTER III included Walter Dodds (1991, Aquatic Ecology), John Blair (1992, Soil and Ecosystem Ecology), and Loretta Johnson (1995, Plant and Ecosystem Ecology). The primary goals of LTER III were to understand how grazing influences biotic and ecosystem processes and patterns imposed by fire frequency over the landscape mosaic, all of which are subjected to a variable (and possibly directional) climatic regime. The additional research associated with large ungulate grazing and an expanded landscape perspective led to the establishment of several challenging studies, many of which are ongoing. These new initiatives were designed to complement programs at other LTER sites as well as enhance efforts within the LTER core areas.

LTER IV (1996-2002). Leadership during LTER IV was provided by Alan Knapp, John Blair and John Briggs, with co-PIs Hartnett, Kaufman, Dodds and Johnson. Briggs left KSU in 1998, but remained an active researcher and Co-PI in the LTER Program. Blair assumed administrative responsibilities in 1999 (mid-funding cycle). During LTER IV, we built on existing long-term studies of fire, grazing and climatic variability with a broadly-based research program encompassing studies from the organismic through population, community, and ecosystem levels. LTER research expanded to include studies of climate change, net carbon exchange, restoration ecology and land use/land cover change. These studies were linked via an overarching theme that addresses the major abiotic and biotic factors influencing this ecosystem and explicitly includes a non-equilibrium perspective on ecological patterns and processes in this grassland (Knapp et al. 1998). New KSU faculty scientists added during LTER IV included Ari Jumpponen (1999, Fungal Ecology), Karen Garrett (1999, Plant Disease Ecology), Kimberly With (2000, Landscape Ecology), Brett Sandercock (2000, Avian Ecology), Carolyn Ferguson (2001, Plant Systematics), and Keith Gido (2001, Aquatic Ecology).

LTER V (2002-2008). LTER V was led by Blair, with Knapp, Briggs, Hartnett and Johnson, Dodds and Kaufman as Co-PIs. Knapp left KSU in 2003, but remained an active participant. The goals of the Konza LTER V program were three-fold:: 1) to continue and expand the strong core LTER experiments on fire, grazing and climatic variability begun over 20 years ago, with the goal of improving our understanding of the major abiotic and biotic factors determining grassland structure and function; 2) to further develop a mechanistic and predictive understanding of grassland dynamics and responses to multiple global change phenomena, using ongoing and new long-term experiments and datasets, coupled with shorter-term supporting studies; 3) to expand our synthesis activities based on LTER results, and use these syntheses to develop and test current ecological theory. Our LTER experiments explicitly addressed the major drivers of ecological dynamics in these grasslands, and their interactions with global change phenomena at local and regional scales. A major new emphasis of the Konza LTER program was global change and the responses of grassland ecosystems. We define global change broadly as human-induced alterations in climate, land-use, hydrologic and biogeochemical cycles, and species introductions. We focused our LTER studies on aspects of global change most relevant to grasslands: changes in land use (especially fire and grazing regimes) and land cover (increases in woody cover); climate change; altered nutrient cycles (enhanced N deposition); and biological invasions. New KSU faculty scientists added during LTER V included Tony Joern (Insect Ecology, 2003) and Samantha Wisely (2003, Wildlife Ecology), along with an increased number of investigators from other institutions.

LTER VI (2008-2014). LTER VI is being led by John Blair, with co-PIs Dodds, Hartnett, Joern and Nippert. The Konza LTER program continues to address fundamental ecological questions, but with increased emphasis on the consequences of global change for ecological dynamics in grasslands, a theme relevant to understanding, managing and conserving grasslands worldwide. We focus on long-term responses to facets of global change most relevant to grasslands and grassland streams – changes in land-use (fire and grazing regimes, grassland restoration) and land-cover (particularly increases in woody plant cover); climate change and altered hydrology; and altered nutrient cycles (enhanced N deposition) – and we couple long-term observations with manipulative studies to provide mechanistic explanations for these responses. Our research also addresses a suite of biotic interactions (competition, mutualism, predation, herbivory) in grasslands, and will continue to provide insight into a broad range of general ecological phenomena. Many of the long-term experiments and datasets initiated in previous LTER grants are being continued in LTER VI, while several new experiments and datasets are initiated. We continue to use LTER data to promote formal integration and synthesis to advance ecological understanding of this and other ecosystems. During LTER VI, we continued and expanded support for research by scientists in other departments at KSU (John Harrington, Geography; Stacey Hutchinson, Civil Engineering; Kendra McLauchlin, Geography; Kevin Price, Agronomy) and from other institutions (Sara Baer and Matt Whiles, University of Southern Illinois; Alan Knapp and Melinda Smith, Colorado State University; Nate Brunsell and Gwen Macpherson; University of Kansas; Gail Wilson, Oklahoma State University).

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