Tallgrass Prairie Center

Working Prairies

The Theme

This year’s conference theme – “Working Prairies” – reflects the evolving role of prairie in today’s landscape. UNI’s Daryl Smith, whose contributions to the preservation, restoration and reconstruction of Iowa prairies span decades, explains ...

Roadside prairieThe confluence of land, climate, biota and Native American culture that created the pre-settlement prairie will never happen again. To prevent the disappearance of this unique and beautiful ecosystem, we have spent years preserving and restoring prairie remnants and reconstructing prairies. These restored and reconstructed landscapes provide knowledge about our prairie heritage, and meet a crucial need of our society.

I support and applaud efforts to restore portions of the prairie landscape to how it was prior to Euro-American settlement. I have spent the past 43 years in that endeavor. I did so, fully aware that we can never achieve a complete replica of the historic landscape, but knowing we have a perpetual responsibility to try. However, as essential as these reconstructions and restorations are, such “living museums” will not be sufficient to meet the need for prairie in the 21st century – which I believe will be the “Restoration Century.”   

Using prairie to address current environmental concerns and provide ecological services allows us to incorporate more of it into the landscape.  While not replicating the diversity of pre-settlement prairie, utilitarian prairie plantings offer elements of that ecosystem.  These working prairies provide biofuels, assist in flood mitigation, reduce soil erosion and lessen nutrient loss while providing habitat for pollinators and other wildlife. Perhaps awareness of these critical services will influence society to endorse maintaining and restoring a more natural world to counteract an ever-increasing human population and the accompanying potential for environmental degradation.

When all is said and done, regardless of the challenges associated with restoring this historic ecosystem or elements of it, the ecological, conservation, economic, educational and cultural rewards are well worth the effort.  Prairie restoration, in the future, could be a major contributor to mending the rents in the fabric of our natural systems and aiding global conservation efforts.