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Iowa's largest prairie restoration project was built from the ground up — and it's still growing

Bison calf and and adult bison on the snow-covered tallgrass prairie.
Joan Van Gorp
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Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge
IPR's Talk of Iowa host Charity Nebbe speaks with Jim Pease, Pauline Drobney and Pete Eyheralde at the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge on Earth Day in front of an audience.

Land that was once purchased for a nuclear power plant is now 6,000 acres of restored prairie at the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Jasper County. One day, it hopes to reach 8,650 acres.

At one point, tallgrass prairie covered around 85% of Iowa's land. Today, less than 0.1% remains.

The Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge is home to 6,000 acres of reconstructed prairie. The project began with 3,600 acres in 1990 and has the ability to expand to as large as 8,650 acres — but it has plenty of growing to do.

"We're not there yet," said wildlife biologist Jim Pease, professor emeritus at Iowa State University. "Hopefully someday."

The land where the prairie now thrives with both flora and fauna — including a herd of over 50 bison — was once intended for a nuclear power generating station. The refuge was authorized by Congress, by appropriating $6 million for land acquisition through the Dire Emergency Supplement Appropriations Act. The first major parcel of land, approximately 3,600 acres, was purchased from the Redlands Corporation, a subsidiary of Iowa Power.

Originally called the Walnut Creek National Wildlife Refuge, the name was changed to Neal Smith in 1998 to honor Congressman Neal Smith, who was instrumental in the establishment of the refuge.

"It's a wonderful place," Pease said. "It's always wonderful to come back and see the changes and see the things that are the same, but most of all to see the progression of the prairie."

Today, Neal Smith is the largest prairie reconstruction in Iowa, and building it up has been no easy feat.

"It was amazing that this place ever came to be, really," Pease said.

Being the first attempt at ecological restoration of its scale or scope in the state, the prairie needed excessive planning to maintain its ecological integrity, according to retired prairie and savanna biologist Pauline Drobney.

"We weren't just going to buy seed anywhere. We needed to have it come from these last little bits of remaining remnant," she said.

 Winding road traveling through a tallgrass prairie landscape with a cloudy sky in background.
Nancy Corona
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U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
A winding road traveling through Neal Smith.
"It was amazing that this place ever came to be, really."
Jim Pease, wildlife biologist

Iowa's largest original prairie remnant, the Hayden Prairie State Preserve, in Howard County, is just 240 acres, but Drobney said it was too far away from Neal Smith to harvest seeds from, and it had grown in a different environment. Therefore, seeds had to be gathered from small tufts of remaining prairie across the state and grown by volunteers and individual seed producers themselves.

"Everything about this project was invented from the ground up," she said.

Today, the prairie thrives thanks to the introduction of keystone species like bison. While a controversial addition at first, the bison have proven an important attraction to get people to spend time at the prairie, while also playing a critical role in the prairie's overall environmental health. The bison's behaviors, like their rolling "wallowing" that packs down dirt, stimulates plant growth and water collection.

Insects have thrived in the tallgrass and prairie burns were introduced to the land that have encouraged additional growth.

Host Charity Nebbe speaks with Jim Pease, Pauline Drobney and Pete Eyheralde during a live recording of Talk of Iowa at the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge on Earth Day 2023.
Michael Leland
/
IPR News
Host Charity Nebbe speaks with Jim Pease, Pauline Drobney and Pete Eyheralde during a live recording of Talk of Iowa at the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge on Earth Day 2023.

Still, to get the prairie to its goal will take years — perhaps hundreds of years after its current caretakers have gone. Pease calls it a "thousand year project."

"We will never know what we've lost, and all of the things that we do are pale in comparison to what we once had," Drobney said. "This was all seemingly endless prairie and savannah out here."

Josie Fischels is IPR's Arts & Culture Reporter, with expertise in performance art, visual art and Iowa Life. She's covered local and statewide arts, news and lifestyle features for The Daily Iowan, The Denver Post, NPR and currently for IPR. Fischels is a University of Iowa graduate.
Samantha McIntosh is a talk show producer at Iowa Public Radio. Prior to IPR, Samantha worked as a reporter for radio stations in southeast and west central Iowa under M&H Broadcasting, and before that she was a weekend music host for GO 96.3 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Charity Nebbe is the host of IPR's Talk of Iowa