Regrowing Iowa's lost prairie along Iowa roadsides

Kirk Henderson's eyes stray from the pavement and painted lines when he drives Iowa's county roads. His gaze is naturally drawn to the ditches. It's his job.

Henderson spends his summer months on Iowa's quiet county two- and four-lane roads as the Integrated Roadside Vegetation Management, or IRVM, county coordinator out of the University of Northern Iowa, inspecting the native tallgrass prairie planted in roadside ditches.

“Iowa needs more places where you just don't recognize the hand of man at work," Henderson said. "It's what we're missing. We'll never know what the prairie used to look like."

Program’s initial roots

The IRVM roadside program began two decades ago as an attempt to purify groundwater and preserve Iowa's disappearing prairie ecosystem. The grasses once covered 80 percent of Iowa, but due to expanding populations and agriculture, less than one-tenth of 1 percent of prairie remnant — untouched Iowa prairie — remains.

But the prairie is making a minor comeback in the most visible of places. An estimated 750,000 acres of state and county roads cover Iowa, and the IRVM and Iowa Department of Transportation have planted nearly 50,000 acres on the roadsides. Henderson's work entails supporting the counties for consistent planting and drawing uninvolved counties into the program.

"I think the reason we have such a strong program is because Iowa has the recognition for having lost so much of our natives," said Daryl Smith, director of the UNI Tallgrass Prairie Center. "The roadsides provide us an opportunity to recover some of that lost vegetation."

In its 20th year, IRVM has enticed almost half of the state's 99 counties into roadside planting.

The Living Roadway Trust Fund, also established in 1988, provides equipment, seeds and safety gear to the roadside managers, and pays Henderson's salary — an annual infusion totaling a quarter-million dollars. Other programs assist; Iowa's Resource Enhancement and Protection program, for instance, which funds protection and enhancement of Iowa's land and water, puts 3 percent of its budget into roadside vegetation.

Active counties each plant between 20 and 40 acres a year, and Henderson hopes to see every county reach this level.

"By funding native seed, seeding equipment, training workshops and educational materials, the Living Roadway Trust Fund has helped create a small army of prairie restoration experts," he said.

Budding benefits

Prairie grass is more than just something pretty to look at, said Chris Henze, Johnson County's roadside manager. "You have a narrow strip of habitat, of vegetation, and it's getting used for lots of different things," he said. "People think habitat and they think deer, pheasants and turkey and it's a lot more — I guess in my mind that might be my romanticism; providing the last vestige of habitat."

Prairies offer more habitat and enhancement than people might imagine. Mark Masteller, chief landscape architect for Iowa's DOT, said prairie's great benefit to drivers is enhanced safety.

In winter, native prairie grass can stand upright in the snow and prevent blowing whiteouts, while in summer, increased color and wildlife in ditches help eliminate driver fatigue, he explained. "The variety of textures and colors along the roads help keep drivers alert," Masteller said.

The benefits even extend into people's homes. The deep root systems that keep prairies alive — stretching as much as 15 feet below the surface — offer a convenient sponge for heavy Midwest rains, delivering cleaner water that runs into rivers and streams and, eventually, kitchen sinks. Henze said our society's culture of flushing water away, in locales from parking lots to storm sewers, is one habit to break with help of prairie's water retention.

"Roadsides are a small but important part of the picture," Henze said. "Wildlife habitat, erosion control, there's a lot of different reasons for that narrow little strip, but it has such an impact and so many different meanings."

Sprouting doubt

Yet even if promoting prairie planting is a noble cause for restoring historic nature, saving habitats for animals, and road safety benefits, some Iowans have resisted the process.

At farm shows in the early 1990s, Henderson and his colleagues encountered skepticism and doubt. "The early years of the project were a bruising experience. People said it would never work, that it was a waste of money," he said. "To them it was too wild and messy."

Fortunately for roadside prairie enthusiasts, the skepticism has receded. But even after 20 years, Masteller said he still encounters resistance when planting begins on a new road, from landowners hesitant to allow plantings bordering their residential property.

"When we go in and kill existing vegetation in front of someone's house, we have controversy," Masteller said. "There is some weed multiplication and in the meantime, it looks bad and is all browned out. That's when we get the negative comments."

Roadside managers, like Henze, are responsible for weed and erosion control on county roadways, but also must educate landowners, represent county habitat programs and defend the roadside planting process. Usually starting from seeds, blossoms of color can take two or three years, causing concern for some citizens.

"Some [residents] are completely for the program and some are completely against it. Some are not patient enough," Henze said.

He added that much of the opposition comes from landowners who prefer closed-cropped lawn grass to the array of plants and species that inhabit a right-of-way planting, yet he argues tallgrass prairie is still cheaper than maintaining short grass.

"When you figure out how much it costs to mow it, put the fuel in the mower, maintenance and your time, native vegetation is a lot cheaper."

Masteller and his team set up town meetings and visit residents door-to-door with pamphlets to explain the process. "We promote the benefits up front, before we send a contractor out there," he said. "We're heavy on the public education component, but if someone really doesn't like it, we'll skip that area of land."

Growing ambitions

UNI’s Henderson looks to the future for the other half of Iowa's uninvolved counties on board with the program. With help from a trust fund sponsored DOT traveling county-to-county exhibit and educational materials, he hopes to increase roadside manager participation and keep prairies thriving.

But the programs aren't just for educating adults. With Fields of Green, Living Roadway Trust Fund coordinator Steve Holland said the DOT is reaching out to kids by educating their teachers. Now in its third year, 50 to 75 teachers participate statewide in the program.

"We're trying to teach teachers how to promote the prairie in a good, positive light. It doesn't tell them 'this is right,' we let them think about it to see if it's the right thing to do," Holland said.

The Tallgrass Prairie Center is also working toward the future on various projects, including a seed marketing program, outreach to other states' native planting and balancing between prairies and agriculture.

That balance may be found in a technique called patch-burn farming. The process allows cattle to graze one area until consumable plants are gone, and then moves them to a fresh pasture so the grazed prairie can once again grow tall and tough enough to burn. Burning then creates a rich soil in which fresh plants grow to use as pasture again.

"Our pastures are smaller but you'd move them around from one pasture to the other, so one can recover while another is being grazed," Smith said. "It has promise but it takes some special effort to get it in the agricultural community."

Balancing prairie preservation and energy production is another goal, giving rise to a prairie power project that envisions harvesting prairie burning for electric energy, for uses such as home heating. The research is under way and he hopes to see progress in the next five years. 

"We happen to hit at the right time: Everybody's interested in alternative energy and I think there is an opportunity here," Smith said. "I'd like to see prairie be involved but in the right way."