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This Alabama forester uses TikTok to identify rare species, native plants

Kyle Lybarger spends a lot of time walking in the woods. In fact, it takes up most of his week.

Lybarger, a Morgan County native, recently rose to fame on TikTok for his informative videos about Alabama’s rare plant species. He travels the state identifying different oaks, grasses and wildflowers – often from roadsides, trails and open fields.

His findings have helped restore dozens of declining Alabama prairies, and most recently he received a grant to share his expertise with Hartselle students.

“Everything I encountered I took pictures and tried to figure it out,” he said.

Lybarger started posting weekly photos of his finds on Facebook a few years ago, eventually venturing into deer hunting groups, where he found a tight-knit community of botanists and wildlife experts.

His posts took off and he started experimenting on TikTok under the @nativeplanttok account. He recently moved to other platforms like Instagram and Youtube – where he saw his subscriber numbers jump from 1,000 to 100,000 in just five weeks.

The answer led him to create the Native Habitat Project, which aims to support habitat restoration efforts across the state.

It’s a career he never imagined for himself, Lybarger said, even though he had a long-standing interest in the outdoors.

After high school, Lybarger attended Wallace State for two years, then studied wildlife at Lincoln Memorial University, where, ironically, he and his classmates “didn’t get out the whole semester.”

“I don’t think all kids are meant to sit in class all day, and I don’t think that’s the best way to learn half the time,” he said. “Being outside, seeing things, that’s how I learn. And that’s what I try to do in my videos, it’s just to educate people the way I like to learn.

Eventually, Lybarger earned a degree in forestry from Alabama A&M University. Soon after, he started working as a private forester.

Lybarger has worked with loggers and private landowners to manage properties in a way that’s good for the land, he said. He removed bad trees and replaced them with something better, often turning them into a savannah rich in new species of grasses and wildflowers.

Along the way, Lybarger became fascinated with open grasslands — a landscape he says was largely destroyed when European settlers turned the land into crop fields and pastures.

According to a 2007 Mississippi State University study, only 1% of the grasslands remaining spanning the Alabama and Mississippi Black Belt regions remain. Other studies have called the landscape “critically imperiled”.

“That’s when I kind of flipped the switch, like, ‘Man, we really screwed up,'” Lybarger said. “Our idea of ​​what the landscape is supposed to be has really changed.”

“And that’s when I started thinking, I gotta start educating people about it other than my wife,” he added with a laugh.

Over the past few years, Lybarger has made some important discoveries.

He was the first known person to find purple milkweed in Alabama, he said, as well as the first to document Durand oak, a plant that typically thrives in grasslands.

Some of these finds were remote counties. Others were a few miles from their homes.

“Nobody even talked about where our school was, it was a prairie,” he said, noting a more recent discovery: a rare sandstone tundra just yards from his former college.

Lybarger received an $8,000 grant this year to help turn this land into an outdoor classroom. He will soon begin clearing the paths around the school property, where the rocks will serve as benches for the students to sit on.

Other projects on his list are the restoration of a 40-acre meadow, a campaign to designate April as Native Plant Month, and potentially another push to return the state flower to the rightful ownership of the goldenrod.

Later, he would like to help start a high school burn crew in Hartselle to help train students in running controlled fires.

“I hope it sparks an interest in kids about where they want to pursue a career in the outdoors,” he said. “I think it’s really, really needed right now, and nobody else is really doing it.”

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