Shawnee Mission Faces: Matt Garrett, keeper of prairies and rural cyclist

Matt GarrettMatt Garrett is a field biologist for the Johnson County Park & Recreation District. A resident of Lenexa for the past seven years, he shares his passion for prairie life with his 8-year-old son, Owen. He also enjoys rural cycling with his girlfriend and fellow prairie lover, Megan Merryman. They particularly enjoy bike-packing through the Flint Hills. Garrett manages Ogg Prairie in Shawnee Mission Park, a remnant prairie in the Kansas City area.

Before a wagon came to Kansas City, Ogg Prairie was here. We call this a remnant prairie. We have about 17 of the spots left, and we’re standing in one.

Kill Creek Prairie west of here even has wagon ruts. When I do a prescribed fire, you can actually see the wagon routes that go across the prairie from settlers moving across the landscape. There’s even a buffalo wallow on the site. So these are truly presettlement snapshots of what Johnson County looked like.

The tallgrass prairie, obviously, people think of grass. But in the springtime, there are all kinds of short, wonderful wildflowers that grow here. If you stand just down the hill from the top of this ridge, you’d be bathed in a rainbow of colors, depending on the season. And then the tall grasses take over in the fall.

There’s about 200 different species of plants that are growing right here on this eight acres. Some of them are quite rare. We’re standing on rocks and these plants can grow in this dry, rocky, hellish kind of landscape. In the middle of summer, this is some of the most brutal conditions a plant could live in. They’re all fighters, which I appreciate. Everything that lives on a prairie is hanging on, you know, they’re all just hanging on and doing the best they can.

We’ve got species that are not even known to science. I hired a bee biologist and he inventoried Ogg Prairie and the Kill Creek Prairie. The two sites had, I believe, 55 species of native bees. As he began capturing them, he found one that he couldn’t identify and he sent it to the other bee nerds, you know, around the country, and no one could identify it. He found out that it’s a subset of a group of native bees, and this is an unidentified species.

Prairies are kind of born out of disruption. It’s hot, it’s cold; you know, a thousand years ago, buffalo would have run across and trampled this site. Fire is one of the most important parts about managing prairie. If fire didn’t roll across the landscape, trees would take over and this would disappear. And when I was hired about eight years ago, I hiked this site, fell in love with it, and I put its first prescribed fire in decades on the site and woke the landscape up.

We have a few of these sites hidden around Kansas City, and no one knows a lot of these places exist. Johnson County was, I believe, about 80 percent tallgrass prairie, and we have 0.08 percent of that left.

It’s the most threatened landscape in the world. There’s less prairie on the planet than just about every other ecosystem. People worry about the Amazon; they worry about the North Pole and climate change and the oceans, and the most threatened landscape in the world is right here in northeast Johnson County. There’s so little of it left. That’s why I’m so passionate about it. If we don’t do something, it’s gone.