Since 1991, Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge staff and volunteers have been reconstructing tallgrass prairies and oak savanna ecosystems on 5,600 acres near Prairie City, making it one of the largest prairie reconstruction projects ever attempted. The idea is to return this land to what it looked like before Iowa was settled and put to the plow.
The prairie provides habitat for 100 species of mammals, including a herd of 84 buffalo and 24 elk. Plus, over 200 species of birds call it home.
There are several hiking trails, which would have been fun to explore if we’d had the time and a four-mile driving tour through the refuge where, if you’re lucky, you’ll cross paths with those buffalo and elk.
At the center of the refuge is the Prairie Learning Center, which puts Iowans in touch with our roots—literally. Among the many exhibits in this impressive building are displays showing how the prairie grasses put down massive root systems up to 12 feet deep.
They had to in order to survive the extremes of our climate, particularly scorching-hot dry summers. It’s these roots, built up over the centuries, which created Iowa’s rich topsoil—some of the most productive in the world.
It’s a good lesson in where our agricultural heritage is rooted and what continues to sustain our people and economy.
Another thing that struck us about the refuge was the sound track of prairie sounds that’s piped throughout the Learning Center—including the songs of dozens of prairie birds, the yips and yowls of coyotes, grunts of the buffalo, thunder from an approaching storm followed by the sound of rain falling on the prairie grasses.
We could have sat and just listened for an hour—imagining what it would have been like to be camped out on the Iowa prairie 200 years ago.
This content previously appeared in the popular “Road Trip” series in Our Iowa Magazine. Learn more about the publication at www.OurIowaMagazine.com.