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40 Years of Prairie Preservation at Loess Hills

More than a half-million acres of Iowa's Loess Hills Prairies have been preserved for 40 years. (Chris Helzer/The Nature Conservancy)
More than a half-million acres of Iowa's Loess Hills Prairies have been preserved for 40 years. (Chris Helzer/The Nature Conservancy)
June 3, 2016

ONAWA, Iowa - While much of the prairie ecosystem in Iowa has been overtaken by development, agriculture or invasive species, hundreds of thousands of acres within the Loess Hills of Western Iowa have remained pristine.

Species typical of the Western Great Plains including yucca, rare ferns, birds such as the upland sandpiper, and even rattlesnakes are found there.

Dianne Blankenship is coordinator for the Loess Hills Prairie Seminar, which celebrates 40 years this weekend.

"Because the prairies in the Loess Hills were spared from the plow for so long, there's more prairie remaining in the Loess Hills, remnant prairie, than elsewhere in Iowa," she says.

The free event this weekend in Onawa includes hikes, sessions in the field to learn about birds and plants, nature-writing and photography workshops, along with Native American stories and rituals.

Check the Northwest Area Education Agency's website for information.

Blankenship calls the Loess Hills prairie ecosystem a true conservation success story, with support not only from groups like the Iowa Prairie Network, the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation and the Nature Conservancy of Iowa, but also the time and effort of volunteers.

She says much of their work is keeping invasive species out.

"That's one of the prairie's greatest enemies is the encroachment by brush and then eventually, trees," she says. "I'm talking about scrub trees that shade out the prairie and the loss of diversity, and the loss of the prairie."

Besides the natural beauty of the area, Blankenship says there's much to learn from the prairie. Most of the native plants do an amazing job during periods of drought and could help conserve water in other parts of the state.

"It's almost all perennial plants," she says. "But the roots go down really deep or they spread out in all different fashions, and they act like a sponge."

One of the many workshops offered this weekend at the Loess Hills Prairie Seminar is a demonstration of how to use these prairie perennials in backyards.

Bob Kessler, Public News Service - IA