Prairie Issues An Open Letter to Conservationists

Hello fellow conservationists —

During the last couple months I collected statements about prairie-related issues for part of a presentation at the 2002 Joint Annual Meeting of the Iowa Prairie Network, the Nature Conservancy of Iowa, and the Iowa Native Plant Society. I tried to include a wide range of prairie experts, interests and organizations in this survey, asking each individual to submit a summary of the issues they see as the biggest problems affecting prairies in Iowa today. These statements were made available at the annual meeting and soon will be on the IPN website. In addition, during the meeting, we had an open session to discuss prairie issues.

I have now summarized these issues (as best as I can, there are many interrelated aspects). I would like to offer them to this list in the hope of getting more input, commentary, and suggestions for action.

The strongest message that comes through is the need for more education and outreach. Clearly we need to connect more with the non-conservation-oriented public, through seminars, literature, field days and things as simple as bringing a friend or inviting a legislator to an environment-oriented event. In addition, public agencies often hold outdated, incorrect or unappreciative attitudes toward prairies and native species in general, and these policies and the attitudes behind them need to be changed through information and education. A final needed aspect of education is the standardization of terms and practices related to prairie management.

Other big “winners” are concerns about invasive species and lack of manpower to do even the basics, let alone get anything extra done, such as more fire prescriptions, surveys for unknown remnants, political activism, and…education.

So, first a few general categories and then some “specialty” items:


  • Public – much of the populace has no real knowledge of prairies, and many schools dedicate little time to teach about prairies.
  • Governmental – proper implementation of the Farm Bill and other legislation and policies need to be based on solid understanding of prairies
  • Landowners – property owners of all types need to be educated about options for prairie reconstruction, native landscaping, and remnant restoration, and have realistic expectations of what is possible, feasible and ideal.

Management issues:

  • Fire – lack of uniform procedures for all aspects of burning, lack of trained providers, lack of personnel (trained or not), resistance to burning by public and organizations,
  • Manpower – chronic shortage of employees and volunteers across all organizations
  • Invasive species – massive problem in virtually all prairie vegetation
  • Ecotype – use of cultivar and non-local-ecotype seed, especially problematic when planted near remnants but also when used in attempts to establish high quality reconstructions.
  • Research – establishment and management techniques are still evolving, and we need to keep improving both
  • Coordination of effort: there are many different groups and organizations working with various aspects of prairie in Iowa but often there is little communication between groups, leading to duplication of effort and missed opportunities. Cooperation among agencies on similar goals would lead to greater funding potential, and shared expertise and resources.


  • Permanent protection – land needs to be processed through appropriate legal channels to be permanently preserved. As ownership changes, there need to be legal guarantees that new owners cannot destroy valuable ecosystems.
  • Permanent stewardship – long term maintenance needs to be guaranteed for permanently protected areas, and any restoration or reconstruction effort is worthless unless future maintenance is assured.
  • Farm Bill Rules – have often worked against prairies in the past, but there is a good possibility now that they may be used to restore remnants and establish reconstructed prairies. Potential applicants need to be reached (traditional farm-oriented channels may not be effective) and then educated about all options available so they realize they can do more than plant a monoculture. Agencies responsible for implementing the farm programs need to be educated regarding prairies, which are not a traditional Farm Bill concern.
  • Government regulations – many rules and laws which affect prairies do not include prairies as worthy of concern. Examples include mowing requirements and burn bans within city limits, and Iowa code, which lists woodlands but not prairies as areas to avoid when routing new highways.
  • Guidelines – there are many prairie-related activities that would be helped by standardization and subsequent dissemination of official guidelines: ecotype seed collection, remnant management and restoration, fire prescription, invasive species management, reconstructed prairie establishment.


  • Buffer – remnants need to be surrounded by a buffer of land planted with seed from the remnant (or appropriate ecotype), to protect the remnant from invasive species, tree encroachment, spray drift, and other problems.
  • Identify – the known remnants need to be documented, and unknown remnants need to be found and identified, especially when landowners are getting advice on how to manage their land.
  • Conservative management – the rarity of remnants requires an extremely cautious approach when making management/restoration decisions.
  • Adjacent or nearby plantings – introduction of invasive species or contamination of the remnant gene pool by pollen from non-ecotype species can occur if inappropriate plants are located too close to the remnant
  • Lack of fire – a variety of reasons prevents many remnants from being burned so some of the most important pieces are degrading, possibly past the point of return


  • Lack of respect from general public – unappreciative and destructive attitudes, off-roading, plant-poaching, polluting.
  • Values – many conservationists value prairie esthetics very highly, but the general public often does not. There is a need to acknowledge different perspectives on prairies, and work to find common ground and understanding.
  • Awareness – within the general public there is a great lack of knowledge about prairies, especially about their rarity in Iowa and the uniqueness of the prairie ecosystem.
  • Heritage – prairie as part of Iowa history is often overlooked, by the public and even by historical societies and schools.
  • Monetary – many people view land only as something to produce income, and consequently if it doesn’t provide financial return they see it as worthless. This perspective creates hurdles when trying to convince such a landowner to act in an environmentally sensitive manner. Real costs need to be analyzed for different management options.

Loess Hills:

  • The hills represent a very unusual landform that needs to be preserved, in part because the hills comprise such a novel ecosystem and also because they contain much of the remaining prairie areas in Iowa.
  • Problems: erosion – a serious problem with the ultra-fine soil particles, sloping ground fire – fire has been suppressed historically and needs to be returned to the remnants political strife – not unique to the hills but a problem there too. Continued development and loss of native prairie “Applied” native plants: · Stormwater management – traditional methods of moving precipitation into storm sewers as fast as possible need to be replaced by infiltration and temporary ponding techniques, with native plants as the vegetation. Water quality would be improved and soil erosion reduced by application of these principles. · Hydrologic functionality – many urban and agricultural soils are degraded and compacted, and wherever possible these need to be improved via planting with native species. Increased carbon sequestration is another benefit of planting degraded soils with native species. · Native plant landscaping – public and private lands should be beautified with native plants rather than exotic species, as a means to reduce chemical and irrigation requirements and improve soils.