Learn more about the Prairie Restoration Project by clicking here.
Students enrolled in the ENVS:3230 Prairie Restoration course design, construct and conduct research at the Prairie Restoration Project. Learn more about that course here.
Frequently Asked Questions
A prairie reconstruction is a conservation effort that is both the physical reconstruction and scientific study of the North American prairie ecosystem. Typically, prairie is reconstructed on degraded land that has been severely altered by agricultural, industrial, commercial, or residential development. After the arrival of Euroamerican settlers, prairie ecosystems across the Midwest were decimated, and in Iowa today less than 0.01% of tallgrass prairie remains. This loss amounted to soil erosion, pollinator endangerment, and carbon emissions. For this reason, conservation efforts, such as the Ashton Cross Country Prairie Reconstruction, have been organized by various organizations and universities throughout the region.
Our reconstructed prairie is a tallgrass prairie located on unused, fallow land on the Ashton Cross Country Course. Before this land was purchased by the University of Iowa, it was privately owned by farmers who used it crops and pasture. The prairie is co-managed by the Office of Sustainability and Hawkeye Athletics. Various research projects are being developed on the site, including Dr. Andrew Forbes’s 2020 insect survey.
The tallgrass prairie endemic to Iowa is rich with natural splendor. Imagine a sea of wildflowers, blossoms of yellow, purple, orange, and pink nestled among grasses that stand up to ten feet tall. Imagine an endless emerald expanse, teeming with birds, butterflies, bees, and bison. Follow the compass plant northward and find yourself nestled amongst the sounds and sights of life, diversity abounds around you, and you are overcome with a sense of profound awe. There is innate and inexplicable worth in native ecosystem so diverse and fruitful. The multitude of ecosystem services performed by native plants is enough to combat climate change in Iowa. The habitat provided by the canopy of grasses is priceless, native pollinators depend on the prairie and us on the pollinators. In many ways, the future of humanity in Iowa is linked to the health of the prairie.
Human connection to this ecosystem has been with us since time immemorial, beginning with indigenous nations, such as the Báxoǰe (Ioway) and Meskwaki, who first called this land their home. The prairie holds a unique role in the culture and history of Iowa, and its legacy must be conserved and protected. As described by Samuel Calvin, Iowa’s first geologist, “long before there were any historians, events of historical importance were enacted within the limits of Iowa.”
Over fifty plant species have been seeded at this prairie reconstruction, including many spectacular and interesting forbs and grasses. Look for the Compass Plant, with its yellow aster flower standing up to ten feet tall and waxy leaves that curiously align north-south. Find the Wild Bergamot with its characteristic square stem and purple flower which blooms in July, break open its leaves and smell its tea-like aroma. In the spring and early summer, watch for the spectacular Ohio Spiderwort with its three petaled, purple blossom. Finally, if you’re lucky, you may find the Prairie Wild Rose, whose large, pink flower is recognized as the state flower of Iowa. The tallest plants you’ll notice are the grasses, whose stems rise up ten feet into the air.
Click here for the complete Ashton Research Prairie seed list.
Prairie plants perform a myriad of ecological services, including rebuilding soil, mitigating erosion, providing pollinator habitat, managing runoff, improving water and air quality, and sequestering carbon. All of the environmental problems faced by Iowa today can be attributed to the loss of the tallgrass prairie.
Many prairie plants have roots between five and fifteen feet deep. The root systems are so dense that pioneers described the blades of their plows bouncing out of the soil with a characteristic ping, unable to cut through the thick, organic layer. These roots are crucial for rebuilding soil and mitigating erosion as they hold the earth in place and trap organic matter. In this way, the root systems are also responsible for managing storm runoff, reducing flooding, and sequestering carbon. Furthermore, the roots and stems act as a natural filter for runoff and flood waters, catching excess nutrients and purifying water before it reenters rivers and streams. Water purification and runoff mitigation is especially important in Iowa, as it is a natural, safe, and effective way to prevent eutrophication in our waterways.
Additionally, the prairie is one of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet, with over 500 documented prairie plant species. Biodiversity supports a stable, sustainable planet and is important to the survival of humanity. Pollinators, such as bees and butterflies, rely on healthy ecosystems for habitat, and humans rely on the work of pollinators for food and medicine. In this way, humanity is inextricably linked to the health and biodiversity of our ecosystems, and our ecosystems are clearly linked to the condition of our planet. At home in Iowa, this manifests as a relationship between citizens and the tallgrass prairie, and for this reason prairie conservation and reconstruction is an essential part of the local solution to climate change.
Numerous animals and insects live on the prairie, mostly famously the bison, which evolved with pointed hooves to aerate the ground and an appetite for just the tips of stems, to promote prairie plant growth and development. In Iowa, the fabulous ornate box turtle also calls the prairie home. Native birds such as the greater prairie chicken and sharp-tailed grouse share the prairie with foxes, ground squirrels, voles, mice, gophers, frogs, snakes, and others. Insects including native bees, monarch butterflies, beetles, praying mantid, dragonflies, and grasshoppers buzz, bounce, and fly amongst the grasses. Seldom seen but of major importance are the thousands of soil organisms that live amongst the prairie roots, recycling nutrients and maintaining healthy, fertile soil.
Just as the prairie ecosystem evolved over many years, a prairie reconstruction takes several years to reach maturity. In the first growing season, the seedbed is prepared using controlled burns, mowing, chemical application, and/or plastic coverings to bake the ground. Prairie seeds are best planted on bare ground, and the techniques used to prepare the seedbed strive to wipe the slate clean. After native plant seeds are sown, critical first year maintenance tasks commence. Maintenance techniques such as height-adjusted mowing, prescribed burning, over-seeding, and invasive species removal are performed periodically to ensure native plant seedling establishment and eradication of nonnative and other undesirable species. Similar maintenance is performed throughout the second and third growing seasons.
The extensive prairie root system helps native plants to outcompete weeds and invasives, and it is not until the third growing season that perennial prairie plants begin to establish dominance. Once the native plants have taken over the landscape, the prairie becomes largely self-sustaining and little further maintenance is required. Beyond year three, annual to biannual prescribed burns are used to prevent ecological succession and encroachment of undesirable plants.
This project would not have been possible without the generous contributions from the University of Iowa Undergraduate Student Government and the Iowa Native Plant Society. Additional partners include: The University of Iowa Department of Athletics, the Office of Sustainability and the Environment, the Department of Earth and Environmental Science, and the Department of Biology, Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering and IIHR – Hydroscience & Engineering.
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