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Dordt prairie is becoming a reality

By Sally Jongsma

Thanks to a $24,000 grant from the Iowa Department of Transportation, work is proceeding on the planned restoration of a prairie ecosystem on the south end of campus—land that has been part of the Kuhl Century Farm for many years. The DOT grant, which comes from the Living Roadside Trust Fund, will pay for much of the seed needed to reintroduce a native prairie ecosystem to the area.

The Kuhls, who owned the century farm on which the Dordt College prairie restoration is taking place, were among the first thirty-seven inhabitants of Sioux County. They settled there in 1872. Early in its history, Dordt purchased two other parcels of land from Harry Kuhl, and Kuhl left provision in his will for Dordt to purchase the remainder of his land upon his death.

The Kuhls, who owned the century farm on which the Dordt College prairie restoration is taking place, were among the first thirty-seven inhabitants of Sioux County. They settled there in 1872. Early in its history, Dordt purchased two other parcels of land from Harry Kuhl, and Kuhl left provision in his will for Dordt to purchase the remainder of his land upon his death.

On November 13, excavators arrived at the site to create a berm and several small ponds that will be focal points of the twenty-four acre wetland prairie area. This excavation work was funded in part through a grant from the Sioux County Community Foundation as part of a cooperative effort to benefit the college and the local community. It will include a public bike path that passes through the prairie area. Donations for the restoration have also come from people committed to restoring the area to native prairie conditions.

Creating a native prairie has been a dream of some on campus ever since the college had the opportunity to purchase the Kuhl Century Farm just south of campus in 2002. In fact, senior students in Dr. Robb De Haan’s Seminar on Creation Stewardship (Environmental Studies 396) undertook a semester-long research project to study the area and draw up a plan for such a restoration in 2005. Physical Plant Director Stan Oordt, who manages a small prairie on his property, has also been an advocate of the project. The students built on the work of De Haan, Dr. Delmar Vander Zee, and Oordt, who have been strong prairie enthusiasts and have spent a great deal of time thinking about and planning how to implement it.

“It is something Harry Kuhl would have wanted,” says Vander Zee.

Additional funding for the project continues to be explored, but the DOT grant combined with the Foundation grant has made it possible for work to begin. The DOT grant has an interesting story behind it. Late last summer De Haan decided to attend the 2007 Iowa Prairie Conference where he knew he could connect with other prairie enthusiasts in the state and also tour areas where prairie had been restored.

“I ran into Steve Holland from the Iowa DOT and asked if they had any resources for a college project,” he says, knowing that the DOT gives funds to plant prairie grasses along roadsides. What he learned brought a smile to his face. Not only does the state fund some educational projects, but they had recently funded an educational project in Northeast Iowa and thought it would be nice to do one in Northwest Iowa as well. The DOT believes that educating young people is a good use of its resources since children and young people are not only the leaders of the future, but also help cultivate current public support for such stewardship projects.

Despite a grant deadline that fell less than a month after the conference, De Haan tackled the application and submitted it on July 27. On November 5, the DOT informed De Haan that Dordt had been awarded the grant.

“Now it’s up to us to put it together and make it happen,” says De Haan. “The Restoration of a Wet Prairie Ecosystem on the Kuhl Century Farm,” a 2005 class research project was the guideline. Students researched issues related to soil history, hydrology, and water quality. The class found that the site would support several shallow ponds and a sedge meadow. It would also support upland prairie and savanna ecosystems, along with a variety of wildlife species.

“When you begin a project like this you always look for a reference property with similar conditions to replicate,” De Haan says. “Otherwise you don’t know if your restoration work has been successful or not.” He and his students found such a site in the Steele Prairie near Cherokee, Iowa, about fifty miles southeast of Sioux Center. As part of their research, students located an extensive inventory of plant and animal life observed at the Steele Prairie to help them decide which species to reintroduce on Dordt’s prairie.

The dickcissel is one of the birds that frequent the former Kuhl farm.

The dickcissel is one of the birds that frequent the former Kuhl farm.

An inventory of the current campus site shows grasses that are not native to the area but that had taken over after the land was cultivated. Plants such as reed canary grass, Kentucky bluegrass, and smooth brome have taken over much of the area, filling in the wetland so densely that other species have been crowded out. Since then students in Vander Zee’s local flora class have also inventoried the vascular flora found on the property.

The first stages of restoration are the most labor intensive, involving the excavation work, elimination of invasive species, and reseeding of plants. Once the prairie has become established it will take less work, although as an isolated plot it will need management to be maintained. This includes getting rid of invasive species that will reappear because are they prevalent in the surrounding area and prescribed burning to promote the growth of native grasses and wildflowers. The work will be intensive since De Haan hopes to do in four to five years what it took hundreds of years to do naturally in prairies in the area.

“It will look messy at first,” says Vander Zee, cautioning people not to expect lovely wildflowers scattered throughout the field in the first couple of years as the transition takes place.

The prairie ecosystem offers many educational opportunities—both for Dordt College students and for local elementary and high school students. Dordt professors expect to use the area as a lab for many different classes in the environmental studies, biology, and agriculture majors. Students will use the area for projects and directed research studies. In fact, the Wildlife Ecology class could participate in the management of the site as a service learning opportunity. The Local Flora and Ecology classes will be able to cut down the transportation costs they currently incur because they have to travel some distance to study similar ecosystems.

Many other benefits and aspects of the development need further work and planning, and the college is committed to including the community in this effort so that local residents benefit as well. Although not all plans are finalized, the bike trail through the property will be a first step, and the entire area will be open to anyone who wishes to enjoy the prairie.

“This project gives Dordt College a unique opportunity to live out its convictions, enhance student learning, and make an important contribution to the larger community,” says De Haan.

Vander Zee concurs. “It’s part of a campus resource base that extends the classroom beyond brick walls,” he says, noting that many colleges and universities have developed natural areas that contribute to both classroom learning and a broader respect for God’s non-human creation.

“We don’t tend to look at the non-human creation with much respect, seeing it primarily as a resource to exploit,” says Vander Zee. Having such an area should help students and community members better appreciate the world God made.”