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Restoring Williamsburg’s prairie

By ANDREA FURLONG

prairie
Students in the fifth grade Talented and Gifted (TAG) class plant new prairie grasses in the Mary Welsh Prairie. Pictured are, from left, Sidney Feckers and Hanna Jennings.

Eleven years after its birth, the Mary Welsh Prairie is getting a makeover.

Since prairie seeds were scattered through the hands of fifth graders into a control basin behind the southwest corner of Mary Welsh (MW) Elementary School in 1999, the prairie has seen better days. Several feet have accidentally been mowed over the years, reducing its size. Invasive species, like Kentucky bluegrass and thistles, have found their way in. And, some people appear to have mistaken it for a dumpsite.

“We found this huge tarp, and it could have killed some of the animals and plants,” said fifth grader Hannah Wriglesworth.

After learning about the school’s planted prairie and its condition, Talented and Gifted (TAG) teacher Barb Hagerty developed a special course that would allow for the TAG fifth and sixth graders to be instrumental in its restoration. With the help of Hagerty and naturalist Maria Koschmeder, the students are taking the first steps in years in properly caring for the Mary Welsh Prairie.

Over the last two months of school, the students have studied the types of prairies and plants the Mary Welsh Prairie needs in order to establish greater biodiversity. Without the proper balance of biodiversity, a prairie is doomed to fail, Koschmeder explained.

“A prairie is really a complicated ecosystem. Everything in it — the bugs, the birds, the plants — has some part to play. If you don’t have all the parts, sometimes it doesn’t work really well together. The more parts you have, the (greater) chance that ecosystem will survive and last for a long time,” she said.

After they determined the prairie needed more wet grasses, which are essential for the burning of the prairie, the TAG students secured $400 from the Iowa Department of Transportation (DOT) for seeds. Before planting, the students removed litter, including two heavy tarps measuring several feet in length. They also walked the prairie with GPS units to determine the exact areas that the grasses would grow.

Just within the last two weeks, the TAG students finished planting the remainder of the prairie grasses — but their work isn’t over yet. Next fall, they hope to return to burn the prairie, which hasn’t been burned in over five years. Regular burning of a prairie (approximately every three to four years) is essential to its existence, Koschmeder explained.    

 “Burning it removes that layer of thatch on the soil, so new seeds can germinate. It warms the soil in the fall, so that the plants can get a good start in the spring. A lot of prairie plants need that fire to scarify that seed, so they will germinate, Koschmeder said.

As part of the DOT grant, Hagerty’s TAG students plan to spread their newfound interest in the school’s prairie by sharing it with the community. Starting in the spring of 2011, Hagerty and her students will work with the DOT to build a live trail of prairie plants that will extend from the school’s parking lot to the Mary Welsh Prairie. The distance and direction the path loops around the school will depend on the completion of the school’s new addition, but the living roadway will be at least three feet in width. Once the trail is completed, it will be opened to the public, will all expenses paid for by the DOT, except for signage.

Students said they hope that by having access to the Mary Welsh Prairie, adults in the community will find a deeper appreciation for prairies in general.

“I think if more people see how pretty it is, it might get more people to plant one somewhere,” Wriglesworth said.

Fifth grader Hanna Jennings noted once the prairie pathway is complete, adults won’t have to travel so far to experience the kind of ecosystem that is associated with early Iowa.

“This is a closer prairie to Williamsburg than the Neal Smith (National Wildlife Refuge) or any other in the area. You won’t have to go so far to enjoy it,” she said.

Hagerty agreed.

“Not everyone, I think, knows we have this prairie and I would like them to be aware of it and know that to appreciate nature they don’t have to go that far. We have something very special here. The DOT realizes it and they want us to share it with the community,” Hagerty said.

Koschmeder noted prairies give people glimpses of Iowa’s rich past, but without prairie preservation and restoration, that part of history will vanish.

“Most of the state used to be covered by them. What we have left are tiny remnants. There’s this whole ecosystem that used to be here. It’d be nice to save at least part of that,” Koschmeder said.

 

UPDATED June 1, 2010 12:22 PM

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