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Inside Iowa State, a newspaper for faculty and staff, is published by the Office of University Relations.

August 27, 2004

Prairie effort is paying off

by Karen Bolluyt

Rocks and fossils were an early sign of Jim Pease's future. Brachiopods, agates and geodes weighed down his pockets at the end of his early wanderings in Burlington.

For Jim Colbert, it was streams. In different times, doing what his children would not be allowed to do, Colbert and an elementary-school friend wandered along the Prairie Creek, a mile or two from his Cedar Rapids home.

Jim Pease and Jim Colbert in the Elwood

Faculty members Jim Pease (left) and Jim Colbert check out the progress at the "Elwood prairie" east of campus. Lots of ISU volunteer time went into developing the 4-acre facility. Photo by Bob Elbert.


Today, the two teach natural science and they especially like to teach through first-hand experience.

"Our students get most of their information from the Discovery Channel and zoos," Pease said. "They often know more about the Arctic Circle than about their backyards."

A teaching laboratory

Pease, natural resource ecology and management, and Colbert, ecology, evolution and organismal biology, are faculty members of the ISU Outdoor Teaching Laboratories Committee. In 2000, they proposed reconstructing a natural prairie on university land east of Elwood Drive and north of Lincoln Way.

The land had been a horse pasture, but the horses were moved in the 1980s. Until the 1993 floods, a hodgepodge of plant species fought out a space battle on the land. The floods rearranged, but did not improve, the scene.

Now there are four acres of reconstructed prairie, bordered by a paved path on the east and Elwood Drive on the west. Hundreds of students, 4-H members, volunteers and donors made reconstruction at a minimal cost possible.

The new prairie is intended for ISU students and others interested in prairies. Known for now as the "Elwood prairie," it is walking distance from campus. It is large enough to provide a home for the six to eight grass species and 40-plus species of forbes (commonly called "wildflowers") in the seed mix purchased from Carl Kurtz, an Iowa naturalist and prairie enthusiast.

Standing in the middle of their project earlier this month, they assessed its progress and impact.

"By the week after Labor Day, hundreds of ISU students will have used this area for classes," Colbert said. "It probably will look like a herd of buffalo went through."

"Which is OK. Herds of buffalo went through the natural prairies," Pease said.

The two talked back and forth at a lively pace as they pointed out plants they were seeing for the first time, admired purple prairie clover and rattlesnake master and debated the best time to visit the Boundary Waters Canoe Area on the Minnesota-Ontario border.

"I just took my 7-year-old grandson for his first Boundary Waters visit," Pease said. The berries were the best ever. The serviceberries were incredible. They are my favorite."

"I like the winter. No mosquitoes," Colbert said.

The reconstruction challenge

Before the prairie seeds could be scattered, volunteers took down hundreds of small trees, including invasive species. A herbicide spray prevented regrowth. The remaining trees now have room to grow out, as well as up.

Invasive plant species, such as crown vetch and sweet clover, still are a problem. Planned prairie fires help rid the reconstructed prairie of invasive plants. The native plants are mostly perennials that survive the fires.

But some perennials and biennials are invasive, too, including burdock. First-year burdock grows in large, fuzzy leaves close to the ground. In the second year, the plants are large, bushy and full of burrs and seeds.

They take a toll on the generally sunny dispositions of these two prairie enthusiasts. Colbert frowned and pointed to a large growth of shrubby burdock, just under the bridge on the bike path.

But soon they came upon a cup plant and were caught up in a description of its adaptations for prairie survival. Tall and slender, its leaves form cups along the stem. Water held in the cups conserves moisture.

The rough leaf texture also slows down moisture loss. Not quite sandpaper, not quite weapons-grade whiskers, but somewhere in between, the leaves were a favorite buffalo food.

No buffalo today, but the two naturalists expect the prairie to provide good wildlife habitat.

"Would quail survive here?" Colbert asked. "Is this a big enough prairie? Are there too many feral cats around?"

Pease, the wildlife specialist was not sure, but liked the idea of quail on the Elwood prairie.

Pease quoted conservationist Aldo Leopold who was glad he would "never be young without wild country to be young in."

More to come?

Iowa once was 85 percent prairie. Much of the rest was woodlands and wetlands. At the south end of the Elwood prairie, where big bur oaks grow, is a little taste of the savanna, a cross between woodland and prairie. East of the bike path along Squaw Creek is lowland woodland. Only the wetlands are missing.

"We're talking about establishing a wetland on the Elwood site too," Colbert said. "One big obstacle is cost. Constructing wetlands requires some labor and equipment that volunteers can't provide."

"The university and other people appreciate the contribution this makes to the community and the university," Pease noted, "so we're hopeful about the wetlands."


A 4-acre prairie on the east side of campus, developed through hours of volunteer efforts, has become an outdoor classroom and a haven for prairie enthusiasts.


Time, money and materials

The following people and organizations donated time, money and materials to the construction of the Elwood prairie:

  • Iowa State University, Outdoor Teaching Labs Committee
  • ISU facilities
  • ISU Research and Demonstration Farms
  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
  • 4-H "Touch the Land" members
  • More than 400 ISU students
  • Local volunteers
  • City of Ames