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Companions Preserve
an Iowa Prairie Home

cutting the prairie

Left to right: Richard Baker, professor of geology, Larry Wilson, campus planner, and Doug Jones, associate professor of computer science, remove woody vegetation from one of the five prairie remnants adjacent to Finkbine golf course. -photo by Helen Spielbauer
What are these people doing squatting in a field?

“Cutting brush,” says Doug Jones. “Again and again and again and again.”

Jones, an associate professor of computer science, is one of several UI faculty and staff members who regularly trim back the flora on five patches of University-owned land north of Finkbine Golf Course. Those areas, across the railroad track from the golf links, are no ordinary meadows. They’re the Finkbine prairie remnants, Iowa’s rare snippets of land that has never been plowed or developed. And if you think prairies can take care of themselves, you’re forgetting a little historical event called the Homestead Act of 1862. Once humans took charge, even the untouched pockets of prairie were deprived of the great herds of buffalo and elk that kept the plants low and maintained the complex mix of species that constitute prairie.

“We’re substituting our labor for the game animals that used to wander around Iowa eating the stuff,” Jones explains. “What we cut is what the buffalo used to nibble.”

Other than buffalo, the early pioneers eradicated one more little nuisance: prairie wildfires. Without fires or herds of grazing animals, even the prairie lands that the farmers left untouched turned to scrublands and thickets within about 20 years.

So how did even these small patches of prairie survive? Sheer luck, in this case.

The Finkbine remnants contain land too steep for plowing. They were probably used as pasture, with the cows filling in for absent buffalo. As Iowa City grew, and the golf course was established, the area north of the tracks became a separate 9-hole course. Other than raising cows, there is one thing you can do to a prairie that approximates quite closely the action of buffalo: Mow it occasionally, but not frequently. The areas of “rough” on this course were, in fact, living prairie.

Although the land is still managed by Finkbine Golf Course, the 9-hole course was eventually abandoned and began changing to scrubland. Over the years, various ad hoc groups have adopted it. Legend has it that in the 1970s, maintaining the remnants became a pet project of a team of Iowa varsity athletes. These days, the people who trim are a mixture of UI faculty, staff, and students, as well as members of environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and Project Green. While Jones spearheads the effort right now, that task has been done in the past by UI geology professors Dick Baker and Sandy Rhodes.

To Jones, it has been well worth the labor. Iowa is dotted with small pockets of native prairie like the Finkbine remnant, as well as areas of restored prairie. The restored areas can’t compete with original prairie remnants for biological complexity. The number of species that make up native prairie is tremendous, and most restoration projects can’t hope to replant that many.

“The problem is, it’s easy to get four or five species,” Jones said. “You get Indian grass and big bluestem and little bluestem and bergamot, mountain mint and a few of the other common broad-leafed plants. But how do you get twenties and hundreds of species? Think about reestablishing the mosses, the tiny sedges, the little ground-creeping stuff that’s in and around the roots, the less common wildflowers. The list can go on and on.”

And when it’s thriving, Jones added, a native prairie can do what gives home gardeners fits of envy: “It will begin blooming in July and keep blooming until it snows.”

story by Sam Samuels

May 7, 1999
Volume 36, No. 16


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