Reconstructing the Prairie – A Visit to the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge

Several years ago when we were living in Maine Five String checked a book out from the library about the grasslands that once covered much of North America. Prairie Builders: Reconstructing America’s Lost Grasslands illustrates how much of the country used to be prairie and what happened to that ecosystem. The part of the book that really caught our attention all those years ago was the story that Prairie Builders told about the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge. At that time we really wanted to visit the refuge and see what we had read about first hand. However, our travels took us in another direction and visiting was pushed to the back of our mind. So, it was with great excitement this past summer when we realized that we could finally visit the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge on our trip across the country.

The Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1990 with the mission to bring back the tallgrass prairie to 5,600 acres of land just east of Des Moines, Iowa. The process of reconstructing the prairie is really fascinating from readying the land to finding native tallgrass prairie seeds. The book Prairie Builders does a great job of describing this process. However, visiting the refuge and the Prairie Learning and Visitor Center was really amazing. This was especially true after driving by miles and miles of agricultural land on our way across the country and finally getting a sense of what the land would have looked like in a more natural state.

The Prairie Learning and Visitor Center was one of the best visitor centers that we have been to in a long time. It was super engaging for both children and adults and did a wonderful job of explaining the history, importance, and science of the prairie and how it is being reconstructed at the refuge. The Younger Fives loved the hands-on exhibits and were thrilled at being taken into the “seed laboratory” by a park employee and shown the process by which the seeds are collected and processed to be used to replant the tallgrass prairie.

After we took in our fill at the learning center we had several trails to choose from that would take us up close to the reconstructed tallgrass prairie. It was amazing to be in the midst of the tall grasses! We were able to view flowers and butterflies while the wind made everything sway. The abundance and diversity of life that the prairie supports is staggering when compared to a field full of corn or soybean. We took this video to remind us of the beauty of this wonderful ecosystem that so many people worked tirelessly to bring back to North America.