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.

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.