Kyle Lybarger is on a crusade to save native habitats
Words by Laura Drummond
Photos by Josh Hogan
Kyle Lybarger is on a walk. He’s checking on a thirteen-acre property in north Alabama that he’s been managing for the last several years. Leaves crunch underfoot as he describes what the land in this region looked like before it was covered in cotton fields. A mosaic of grasslands dominated the landscape, making up savannas and prairies. Ecosystems that have all but disappeared. Ecosystems he’s working to restore.
Born and raised in Alabama, Lybarger has always loved nature. “My first passion was wildlife,” he said. He learned that the health of animals relied on one thing—plants. “You wouldn’t take a panda and try to raise it in a pine forest because it couldn’t survive,” said Lybarger. “Our native examples aren’t that obvious, but it’s the same thing. Our native species need native plants.” With an education and professional background in forestry, Lybarger is a conservationist committed to saving native habitats and restoring ecosystems. He established the Native Habitat Project as a platform for education and outreach, and it has grown into an organization that also offers consultation and land management.
The Native Habitat Project grew from Lybarger wanting to share his learnings about plants, biodiversity, and healthy ecosystems with family and friends, and later anyone who would listen. He spent a lot of time outside, identifying native species of grasses and wildflowers. He gained traction on social media by posting videos of his work restoring his own property. On more than one occasion, he offered to manage private lands for free to conserve the rare plants he found there. “That’s really what started the Native Habitat Project. I was conserving these places and educating people,” said Lybarger.
It became clear that plenty of people care about restoration once they know something about it; there was just a lack of easily accessible information. As his audience grew, Lybarger started getting requests for information on specific topics—land development, landscaping, managing agricultural crops and grazing pastures—the list goes on. To address the demand, the Native Habitat Project expanded to provide consultations on how to restore native ecosystems. His priority remains education, helping people understand what the land is naturally meant to be like—and then figuring out how to get as much of it back there as possible. Lybarger and his growing staff travel throughout the Southeast, assisting with grassland restoration, wildflower plantings, and prescribed burning.
The Native Habitat Project advises people with properties of all sizes, from homeowners with modest lots to managers of expansive rural hunting properties, and even large land development companies. They offer guidance on identifying the native species needing encouragement and on the non native or invasive species needing removal, allowing sunlight back into overgrown areas. Then the reintroduction of prescribed burning exposes the seed-storing soil to light, so the native species of plants may return, followed by native insects and wildlife. Prescribed burning is an essential part of the process, according to Lybarger, because it supports biodiversity. “The ecosystem with the most biodiversity supports the greatest number of wildlife species, cleans the air, cleans the water, and creates rich soils,” he explained.
In the future, Lybarger hopes to focus more of his attention and resources on conservation. He plans to purchase private lands with rare native ecosystems and open them to the public, increasing opportunities for education. He has started this process with the purchase of a 4-acre prairie near Alabama’s Flint Creek that he has transformed into a public grassland.
“The coolest part of my job is seeing one of those ecosystems come back to life because it finally got what it needed to thrive,” said Lybarger. “You can see results in just a year’s time.” Progress may happen quickly, but he emphasizes that it’s urgent to start now. The work of restoring and conserving native ecosystems is essential to ensuring they exist for future generations and fighting the effects of climate change. “We need to be leaving at least some of what this place is supposed to be for them to witness,” said Lybarger. “The clock’s ticking. The longer we wait, the more of these places are going to be lost.”
That may make the situation sound hopeless, but Lybarger insists it’s not. He believes anyone can do this work and make an impact; he himself is a testament to that. One way to start is to identify the plants around you. Then remove invasive species and plant native ones. These small steps contribute to the health of the plants but also to the native insect, bird, and wildlife populations—and to all of us for that matter. “There are so many changes that can be made. You can do a whole lot if you put your mind to it,” he said.
You can also help by donating to the Native Habitat Project’s Patreon, which enables the organization to continue offering education and services at no or low cost. To learn more, visit nativehabitatproject.com.