The Frustration of Present Day Prairie Preservation

As a person who cares about tallgrass prairies, it is frustrating as hell to to live in the present. Put me in a time machine and send me back to 1870’s Iowa and I could understand the feelings of pioneers as they worked to plow the virgin prairies to farm the land and support their families. These people did not hate the prairie, and they would probably be more inclined than present day man to feel its loss.

In the present, we have lost our connection to the prairie and nature in general. Most people have never known the prairie, so I can’t blame them if they don’t recognize its value in those situations where they actually encounter the shattered prairie remnants that exist. My frustration is not with these people.

My deepest frustration is with the people and organizations that profess to be environmentalists, yet miss opportunites to really make a difference. Without land ownership, there is no habitat. Without habitat, there is no nature.

Many environmental organizations have decent “hearts”. Many spend all of their resources lobbying Congress or engage in lawsuits to stop the destruction of natural resources. Certainly, these activities have value. But without protected habitat, species never have and never will survive.

For the tallgrass prairie, the opportunity to save the ecosystem was lost nearly a century ago. The only hope for the prairie now is for restoration. Many prairie enthusiasts and those who command resources to buy habitat or land for restoration often see prairie restorations as “second class citizens”. They say that no prairie restoration can truly replace a virgin prairie. Agreed. But if a meticulous prairie restoration restores 100+ plant species on the scale of hundreds or thousands of acres to restore a “functional” prairie ecosystem, shouldn’t this be our goal? The Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge is an example of something large scale.

The best and only sensical model to restore the tallgrass prairie to its rightful role as a functional ecosytem is to buy land, meticulously restore the prairie, then repeat. The frustration is that the will and desire to do this is missing from most environmental organizations.


My Prairie Story

My interest in the prairie started early. Born in 1967, I developed an interest in nature early. Later this evolved into an interest in prairie and prairie restoration when my family bought 80 acres of farmland in Hardin County, Iowa in 1987. That Fall, we staked off two acres of the land with the intention of restoring it to tallgrass prairie. Soon we were scouring the local ditches and railroad right of ways collecting all of the prairie seed we could lay our hands on. Surprisingly, we found quite a few tiny pockets of surviving prairie. Educating ourselves as we went along, we learned to identify the common prairie species by sight both from what they looked like in flower and after they went to seed. Winter soon came and we put our prairie restoration on hold till Spring.

In the Spring, we tilled the plot we chose to restore with a garden sized Sears garden tiller. We recognized the uniqueness of what we were doing as we tilled through heavy corn stubble residue from the previous year and attracted long glances from passing pickup trucks from the road nearby.

Scattering our collected seed to the wind, we were able to cover nearly half an acre that first year. Based on what we had read on prairie restoration, we knew we’d need to be patient as the prairie plants spent their first years developing deep roots with little to show above ground.

Later that Summer, we transplanted rattlesnake master, hoary puccoon, prairie phlox, and others from an area of railroad right of way we had learned was slated for bulldozing. We were happy to augment our restoration with transplanted sods of virgin prairie. More important, we were happy to save the virgin transplants from certain destruction. We learned through our restoration efforts that the last bits of virgin Iowa prairie were still being chiseled away into oblivion. Would there be a day when even these tiny bits would be gone?

By the second Spring, we observed tiny compass plant seedlings and the emergence of small clumps of big bluestem and Indian grass. Slowly the prairie was returning to where it had been absent for 115 years.

By the third year, the prairie took off. By the fourth year, we burned the first half acre and through more local seed collecting had reseeded the remaining acre and a half.

Twenty something years later, this two acre restoration exceeded our expectations. The transplanted species have prospered and spread. Our success was highlighted a decade ago when the Hardin County Roadside Management director contacted us about the prairie he discovered one Summer day as he and his crew spot sprayed thistle patches in county ditches. “Was it virgin prairie?” he asked. He could not tell the difference.

Our restoration is a sense of pride. Not pride in ourselves, but we were proud that at least on this tiny speck of land in a sea of corn and soybeans, the prairie, not the bulldozer, won.


A Hero of Mine

Outside of the prairie enthusiast world, the name Ada Hayden probably doesn’t register. Ms. Hayden, a native Iowan born in 1884, connected with the prairie on her parents farm near Ames, Iowa. Following her love of botany and prairies she excelled in botany at Iowa State University in the early part of the 1900’s.

You can read more here: Ada Hayden

Prior to her death in 1950, Dr. Hayden championed preservation of the tallgrass prairie, identifying remaining prairie sites in Iowa and recommending their protection. The Hayden Prairie in Iowa, named after Ada, is one of the sites she identified and recommended to be preserved. Many more of these sites, now preserved, owe their very existence to her as well.

It’s hard to imagine what the mindset of the general public and legislators was in Iowa in the waning years of World War II, when a female botanist from Iowa State University pressed for preserving prairie. Were her recommendations taken seriously? What was the public attitude towards preserving prairie? In the present, some 70 years after Ada Hayden’s recommendations, has the public’s attitude towards saving prairie changed? Is there any urgency or desire to, as Ada Hayden did, to scout out and try to save any remaining prairie?

I’ve been to the Hayden Prairie Preserve in Howard County, Iowa several times. It’s a lonely survivor, surrounded by a sea of tamed agricultural land. I’ve stood on this prairie and imagined what this area looked like before this prairie became an isolated island. I imagine too what I would discuss with Ms. Hayden if I could bridge time and happened to meet her as I wandered HER prairie. Would she be pleased with the prairie lands now preserved because of her efforts? She should be.


The Love of Tallgrass Prairie

What is so special about tallgrass prairie? I’ve noticed that most people who are prairie enthusiasts are usually extremely passionate about their love of prairies. I consider myself in this lot.

So let me try to articulate my love of tallgrass prairies. Another naturalist once said that to experience a tallgrass prairie, you need to walk out in it. Wade through the tallgrass and wild flowers. Simply driving past a prairie will not do.

As I walk into a prairie I am drawn into a complex world. A virgin prairie is a primeval place which takes no direction from the world of man. Every square inch of prairie is different from every other square inch. Grasses like Big Bluestem compete with prairie wildflowers for sunlight. Butterflies and dragonflies flitter around me. A clump of brilliant orange Butterfly weed catches my eye. Then I see flashy pink prairie phlox. I wonder why I didn’t see either just a moment before as I exited my car. By now I’ve forgotten man’s world of mono cultures and artificial order.

Persons wanting to experience biodiversity need not leave the American Midwest. One acre of high quality virgin tallgrass prairie can easily contain 200+ plant species with an equal variety of insects, birds, and reptiles. The diversity of the prairie makes every visit one of exploration and surprises.

The rarity of tallgrass prairie also attracts me. While the Amazon rain forest continues to be leveled in the present, the tallgrass prairie was relegated to minuscule scraps and is now 99.9% gone in Iowa. This has been the case since the mid 20th century. Take a walk in a tallgrass prairie and you are time traveling to an Iowa landscape that doesn’t exist.

It’s time for me to leave the prairie now. I exit as I step foot on the non-native bluegrass that covers the parking area.


I stumbled across the “Iowa Geographic Map Server” website tonight.

It is here: Iowa Geographic Map Server

On this site, you can access aerial photographic maps of Iowa dating from the 1930’s till the present. Pick a random area. Trace the vegetative cover and land use through the decades. From this exercise, I’ve come to several conclusions.

1. The concept of a “family farm” is largely long gone. The disappearance of individual family farms is evident as farming has taken on a strong corporate character hellbent on making a profit at any cost.

2. Because of the growth of corporate farms and disappearance of family farms, the nature of the land has changed. The aerial maps from the 1930’s show farmsteads with substantial windbreaks, pastures, crooked streams, and idle areas. If the resolution was better, I suspect we’d see hard working families with a strong connection to the land, conscious of the connection between their prosperity and the health of the land they worked.

3. The aerial maps of the present show a loss of most of the windbreak bounded family farms. The more “willy nilly” nature of the land has been replaced by featureless corporate owned “fence row to fence row” monoculture tracts distinguished only by the roads that give access, hog confinements, and rows of wind turbines. My present day travels tell me that my observation here is spot on.

We’ve lost a lot of the natural world in Iowa in the last 80-some years. Evident even on high altitude aerial photographs.

Lost Connection

The biggest factor affecting the continued demise of the natural world is mankind’s growing disconnect with the natural world. It’s human nature to care about things in the realm of their daily life. For example, 99.9% of Americans are not regretful about the loss of the tall grass prairie because they do not even know it exists, let alone notice it’s passing. The American public by and large won’t shed a tear when the last Attwater’s prairie chicken breathes its last breath or when the last small white Lady slipper shrivels to death from herbicide drift. Can we blame them?

A New Beginning

The vast unbroken tall grass prairie that blanketed Iowa is gone. Hopelessly lost forever to the plow and the herbicides that followed. What little is left exists in fragments, like tiny specks in a sea of corn, soybeans, and ditches of smooth brome grass and other non-native species that man introduced to replace the prairie.

The fragments and preserves of tall grass prairie continue to be chipped away year by year by more plowing, herbicides, and neglect. Fragments of true prairie that Ada Hayden measured in acres can now be measured in square feet. Mankind has still not widely recognized the value of tall grass prairie, and so it continues to evaporate from the face of the Earth.

The ONLY hope for the tall grass prairie and its plant and animal species is to RESTORE the tall grass prairie. There are no other viable option because virgin aces of tall grass prairie no longer exist to be preserved. This is a new beginning in terms of prairie preservation.