CEDAR FALLS — A restored prairie site will triple in size after more land was given to the University of Northern Iowa.
In honor of her late husband, David, Cathy Irvine donated 215 acres of land from his family farm in northwest Benton County to the UNI Foundation so it can be returned to tallgrass prairie. In 2018, her initial donation of 77 acres created Irvine Prairie. Once the combined acreage is fully seeded, it will be one of the largest tracts of restored prairie in eastern Iowa.
“I’m over the moon,” Tallgrass Prairie Center Director Laura Jackson said. “It’s an amazing act of generosity and vision on Cathy’s part.”
Irvine initially signed the land over the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, which attached a permanent conservation easement before transferring the deed to the UNI Foundation Properties Corporation on Jan. 25. Regular oversight by INHF ensures that the prairie’s conservation purpose is maintained for perpetuity.
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The center’s mission statement is to “empower people to value and restore resilient, diverse tallgrass prairie.” Jackson said more than a century ago, prairie covered 85% of Iowa’s land. Now, only 0.1% remains.
Seeding on the original 77 acres was completed last year. In addition, 22.5 acres of the land just transferred was seeded in the fall of 2022 with a mixture of 84 species, according to information from the center.
The Tallgrass Prairie Center is also a place for UNI student research. Most of the students involved are in the biology department.
With the help of student research assistants, Jackson said the center monitors all of the plantings on the land, which include 100 types of native prairie plants. Big bluestem, little bluestem, switchgrass, Indian grass, purple coneflowers, gray headed coneflowers and compass plant are among the plants re-established there. UNI classes spend time each year at Irvine Prairie monitoring the success or failure of the plants.
“There’s opportunities to do studies on soils and opportunities to do work in science education,” she said. “There’s lots of ways to tie in with UNI students.”
Jackson said the center reaches out to students to help with yearly prairie burns. Last year, about 25 acres were burned, an amount that would bump up to about 100 acres annually with the additional land. The intent is to burn the whole area once every three years.
Jackson explained that prairie fires are a natural part of the ecosystem. She said burning helps to keep trees from invading the prairie and clears leftover vegetation. She also said prairie plants are adapted to fire, which stimulates them to grow more lushly and flower.
Without the prairie, Iowa would not have rich soils, Jackson said. She calls prairie lands a heritage and a legacy.
She noted glaciers were part of the process of creating great soil but, once the climate warmed, prairie plants moved in and pumped the soil full of organic matter.
Prairie land also brought biodiversity to the region. She said insects, birds and some animals that still live here are all prairie creatures.
“It’s a joy to see them,” Jackson said. “I would like everyone to have that opportunity to enjoy the nature that has been here for thousands of years.”
Jackson said the center hopes to have all 292 acres in bloom by the summer of 2029. Currently, 30 acres are being planted at a time.
The prairie is located north of Dysart at 1174 55th St. – a few miles from Hickory Hills Park. Although it is covered in snow now, there are mowed paths to walk on at other times of the year and it is open dawn to dusk.