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Volunteers rescue native prairie plants from future Cedar Falls High School site

CEDAR FALLS — Earth movers will tear out a reconstructed prairie from the site of the planned new Cedar Falls High School when work begins next spring.

Fortunately, volunteers are preserving some of the native prairie grasses and flowers now.

On Monday, they dug up select plants from the expanse of prairie that stretches around the University of Northern Iowa’s intramural soccer fields and along an adjacent corn field. The plants were bagged and thrown into a pickup truck so they could be driven across West 27th Street and replanted on a newly tilled test plot on Tallgrass Prairie Center property.

The volunteers will be back Tuesday to finish the two-day project.

Once the new school is complete, the prairie plants will be dug up again and trucked back across the road. The school is expected to open in the fall of 2024.

“These plants are mainly going to be put in bioswales in the parking lots,” said Laura Jackson, director of the center and a UNI biology professor. The features, a type of rain garden, are designed to capture and filter pollutants in storm water before it reaches Dry Run Creek.

She noted that bioswales are designed to be dry but also to hold water when there is rain or flooding. It can be challenging to grow plants from seed or keep a young plant alive under those conditions.

“You go from drought to drowning to drought again,” said Jackson. “We thought we’d try to give the high school a head start with those bigger plant materials.”

The prairie was started in the fall of 2013, making some of the plants seven years old. The area is a small part of the more than 100 acres of prairie planted on UNI property.

Jackson said the Tallgrass Prairie Center “has worked a lot with the university on turf-to-prairie areas that are too big to mow all the time.” The organization has also consulted with Cedar Falls Community Schools on the seed mix for other prairie plantings planned on the campus.

The district purchased 50 acres from UNI for the school as well as nearly 20 additional acres from an adjacent landowner. The site is west of the UNI-Dome, which can be seen in the distance. Students will be even closer to Jackson’s center.

“We’re excited to have the Cedar Falls High School across from us,” she said. “It will be a good opportunity to get prairie into their hands.”

The volunteer group was a mix of Americorps members from the Tallgrass Prairie Center and the Center for Energy and Environmental Education as well as UNI students and community members.

“At our peak we had 10 people, and tomorrow we might get more,” Ethan Evans, one of the organizers, said Monday afternoon. By that point, the volunteers had dug up and replanted quite a variety of species. Some of them included prairie blazing star, rigid goldenrod, mountain mint, purple prairie clover, wild indigo, rattlesnake master, pale purple coneflower, New England astor and little bluestem.


Evans said they spent time training the volunteers in the morning before digging in.

“We identified specific plants to dig up, as well as plants to avoid,” he explained. Volunteers were also shown “how much dirt to get around the roots” that would help the plants retain moisture.

Courtney Johnson, a UNI senior, was in a patch of prairie working on digging up some white wild indigo. “Its root is a lot longer” than some other species she had extracted. So, she said, it was taking more work with the shovel to get it out of the ground.

She is a member of Sigma Gamma Epsilon, an honor society for environmental science majors. “Our president worked with the Tallgrass Prairie Center this summer,” said Johnson. This fall, the group has assisted the center a lot, she said, which “got me the connection” to come and help.

Jackson admits this is a small effort, but she’s glad there is an opportunity to preserve something from the prairie.

“It feels good to rescue a few plants from over here and not let them go to waste,” she said.

Architectural drawings of the planned new Cedar Falls High School

Architectural drawings of the planned new Cedar Falls High School

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UNI freshman Isaac Roerig remembered as 'ray of sunshine' with passion for music

CEDAR FALLS — Isaac Roerig was on the University of Northern Iowa campus just eight weeks before his death — barely enough time for most to get a sense of the freshman music education major’s personality.

One student, who said he lived just three doors down from Roerig, noted he said hi to him only once — a regret, he told a crowd of several hundred gathered in Lawther Field on Monday night.

“The moral of this story is, if you ever feel like you should go up and make a new friend, it’s definitely the right thing to do,” said the student, who didn’t give his name.

Roerig’s section leaders in the Panther Marching Band noted their own regrets. Not only did they only get eight weeks to welcome Roerig into their family, the coronavirus pandemic cut short their band camp, meaning fewer opportunities to get to know new students.

“Within drum line, we pride ourselves on being a great family,” said one section leader. “We can’t do everything with one person gone.”

Roerig, 19, died Friday afternoon after being struck and killed by a semi on U.S. Highway 20, according to Cedar Falls Police.

According to police, Roerig’s car was parked under the Hudson Road interchange and he was on foot in the travel portion of Highway 20 when the accident happened.

Roerig’s father, Todd, said he was glad to see so many people come out for a memorial for his son, even though he was a new student.

“He knew when he left here (after his college visit) this was the place he was going to be,” Todd Roerig said. “I know that he made the right choice.”

Roerig sang bass in UNI Singers and played percussion in three of UNI’s bands, and both the marching band and the drumline — as well as UNI’s Campanile — played in his honor during the memorial Monday.

His dorm roommate, Lucas, said Roerig told him he was most passionate about show choir.

“Music was everything to Isaac, and it led me to realize I needed a change in direction in life and find my passion,” Lucas said. “He drove me to be more honest with myself. ... Isaac taught me to find my passion.”

Friends Sarah and Maddie, who went to Bishop Heelan High School in Sioux City with Roerig, said he was their drum major in high school, with Sarah remembering he wrote each marching band member a personal note at the beginning of band camp.

“He was just a ray of sunshine — positive, energetic, always caring no matter what — type of guy,” Maddie said. “One who loved with all of his heart, no matter what, no matter how busy he was, how stressed he was. He had his priorities straight, and he knew who he wanted to love.”

That made it all the more difficult to process Roerig’s death, said Paula Knudson, UNI’s vice president for student affairs, noting the “compounding heaviness” of losing a fellow student and not being able to grieve in the same way during the pandemic.

“In this time of supposed social distancing, we need nothing more than to connect with each other,” she said. “I have to believe that Isaac is looking down upon us and sees the love and support, and is sending it right back to us.”

AP breaking
Iowa tops 100,000 coronavirus cases as Trump plans rally

As Iowa surpassed 100,000 confirmed coronavirus cases Monday and remained the fourth-highest state for rate of infection, the mayor of Des Moines expressed concern that President Donald Trump’s rally this week at the city’s airport could become a super-spreader event.

The state averaged 1,300 new cases per day over the past four days, and during that time there were an additional 46 deaths. As of Monday morning, confirmed Iowa had reported 100,052 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 1,464 deaths from the disease since the pandemic started.

The seven-day rolling average of the positivity rate in Iowa has risen over the past two weeks, from 16.39% on Sept. 27 to 18.44% on Oct. 11, according to an Associated Press analysis of data from Johns Hopkins University. That rate places Iowa fourth behind Idaho, South Dakota and Wisconsin.

With polls showing a tight race between the Republican Trump and Democrat Joe Biden, the president plans a Wednesday rally at a cargo hangar at the Des Moines International Airport. Trump acknowledged Oct. 2 that he had tested positive for COVID-19, and he now plans to resume campaigning despite skepticism about whether he could spread the virus.

Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie has required face coverings to be worn in public in the city since August, but Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds has refused to implement a statewide order and has insisted such local rules can’t be enforced.

Cownie said he’s worried Trump’s visit could become a super-spreader event. He said it appears in media photos and video that such large rallies Trump has held elsewhere often do not have proper distancing and include people not wearing masks.

“We are hoping that here in Iowa that everybody will make proper use of these guidelines and do everything necessary to make it different from what we’re seeing,” he said.

Kayla Kovarna, an airport spokeswoman, said airport officials were told to prepare for up to 10,000 people, although an exact number isn’t yet clear since tickets can still be obtained.

Iowa Democratic Party Chair Mark Smith said the state should not be hosting the event.

“In no way, shape or form should Governor Reynolds or any of our Republican leaders allow for this event to happen. Iowans need a President who will put the health and safety of the country above their own ego,” he said in a statement.

Reynolds’ current state emergency proclamation allows mass gatherings of more than 10 people but requires organizers to ensure there is at least 6 feet of physical distance between each group or individual. It also requires reasonable measures be taken to reduce the risk of transmission of COVID-19.

A spokesman for Reynolds, who is an avid supporter of Trump, didn’t immediately respond to a question about whether the proclamation applies to the rally. She said in a statement she will attend the rally and take precautions and “is encouraging those attending to adhere to the public health steps the campaign is taking such as temperature checks, and the use of hand sanitizer and masks.”

Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said the event will be in an open door airplane hangar.

“We will have safety protocols in place. All attendees will be given a temperature check, masks, which they are instructed to wear, and access to hand sanitizer,” he said.

The Facebook invitation to apply for tickets included a statement that said attendees “voluntarily assume all risks related to exposure to COVID-19 and waive, release and discharge” the Trump campaign from any liability.

Polk County, which includes Des Moines and the airport, has a 14-day average positivity rate of 6.4 percent. The county had a peak in virus activity in early September and has been experiencing a slow reduction in daily cases. The county is still averaging almost 70 new cases per day, county public health officials said in a report posted Oct. 6.

As of Monday, only four of Iowa’s 99 counties were below 5% positivity, a rate at which many health experts recommend enactment of public health measures to slow the spread including mask use, limiting large gatherings and social distancing.