WATERLOO — Cathy Irvine wants people to see what Iowa looked like more than 150 years ago.
In honor of her late husband, David H. Irvine, Iowans and visitors will have a chance to do just that with the donation of a 77-acre stretch of land northeast of Dysart. The area will be restored to Iowa’s native ecosystem — prairie.
“We’ve lost 99.9 percent of our original natural prairie — that’s a lot. A lot more than other places,” said Laura Jackson, director of the University of Northern Iowa Tallgrass Prairie Center, which is contracted to establish and maintain the donated land as prairie.
“We are the prairie state. There was no other state that had taller prairie grass than us. Our ecosystem was built around that prairie vegetation,” Jackson said.
More than a century ago, 85 percent of Iowa’s nearly 36 million acres of land was covered by prairie. Now, only one-tenth of one percent remains in Iowa, and 2 percent of original tallgrass prairie ecosystem remains in North America, according to Jackson.
With the help of Iowa Natural Heritage, a conservation easement restricting how the land is used in the future means the land will always remain a prairie. Ownership of the land belongs to UNI Properties Corp.
The gesture also signifies the love of a couple who cherished nature.
“This prairie was definitely Cathy’s vision. The couple was very passionate about conservation work,” said Sarah Parsons, director of advancement communications with the UNI Foundation.
Students from Union High School, UNI staff and community residents joined the Tallgrass Prairie Center at a dedication ceremony Friday. They began planting of mix of more than 70 species of plants native to northern Iowa.
“I was shocked. At first I didn’t believe it. It’s not every day that you’re approached with such a vision, and it’s just exciting to see the students get an opportunity like this,” Jackson said.
Irvine’s vision includes the chance for students and scientists to further their research and study of prairies.
Prairie species include a balance of grass-like plants, sedges, cool- and warm-season grasses and flowers that bloom from early spring to late fall. All plants have long perennial roots, so each inch of soil will be used.
Prairies are the source of Iowa’s rich soil structure. During heavy rainfall, the extensive root system serves as a filter to absorb water, reduce flooding and preserve water quality, reducing toxic chemicals in drinking water.
Prairies also are reported to produce “fuel for bioenergy, sequestering carbon and providing wildlife habitat,” according to the press release from the UNI Foundation.
The prairie also is a home for a species native to Irvine’s heart — monarch butterflies.
Jackson refers to Irvine as a citizen scientist — she has been tagging monarchs, sometimes 400-500 a season, as they fly to Mexico and back up again.
“She’s been very committed to the bird life, the insect life,” Jackson said of Irvine. “This is just an extension of that — the enjoyment and the beauty of nature.”