What was the catalyst—the magic moment—that brought you to appreciate prairies in the first place?
My first exposure to prairie was in 1990, when I was working for the Audubon County Conservation Board. Former ISU extension agent Paul Walther took me to an abandoned farmstead that had a beautiful little patch of prairie. He then took me to his backyard in town, which was covered with prairie plants. He also helped me plant my first prairie at one of the county parks. I really learned to appreciate prairie when I worked with Kurt Baker in Cerro Gordo County. Kurt believed that “vegetation manipulation” was key to improving biodiversity in Iowa. For seven years, our mission was to convert grass stands that consisted of nonnative plants to diverse stands of tallgrass prairie. This was when I discovered my passion to plant prairie in any place where it didn’t already exist.
Tell us about your specific role at UNI’s Tallgrass Prairie Center.
Initially, in 2001, I worked with Greg Houseal on the Iowa Ecotype Project. Greg and I collected seed from prairie remnants, grew plants in the greenhouse, established and managed production plots on campus, harvested and cleaned seed, and distributed cleaned seed to commercial growers. In 2006, I switched to managing the Prairie Institute at the TPC. Prairie research has become a large part of my job. Working with 7 graduate students on prairie-related research projects consumes most of my time along with grant writing, teaching, conducting workshops, fixing equipment, consulting, and writing.
Beyond the tallgrass species, what other plants and animals are you especially interested in?
I am generally interested in all native plants associated with tallgrass prairie. However, the bur oak is of particular interest because every time I see a great big one, I know that a prairie or savanna once graced its understory. Someday, I would like to see a badger in the prairie.
What has changed in the outdoor world since your first days of trying to learn about it and protect it? What’s better, what’s worse?
A lot of things have changed for the better when it comes to prairies. Public awareness has increased; cities, counties, and the Iowa Department of Transportation are planting more natives; landscaping with native plants is more common; and prairie seed is readily accessible. More species are being included in seed mixes for prairie plantings. However, remnants are still being destroyed.
What advice would you give to beginning conservationists?
Pay attention to current information and practices, but try new techniques and experiment. Always remember what Aldo Leopold said, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
What are the particular challenges of being a conservationist in the Midwest?
Too much land is in private ownership in the Midwest. There is so little habitat left in Iowa, and what is left is small and fragmented. It is difficult to convince a farmer to take land out of row crop farming for prairie unless there is some financial incentive.
What’s the main thing that you hope to accomplish with the publication of The Tallgrass Prairie Center Guide to Prairie Restoration in the Upper Midwest?
The primary goal of this guide is to protect remaining prairies in the Upper Midwest. Also important is to provide natural resource managers and landowners with information that will help them better plant and manage their tallgrass prairies.
What are your favorite natural areas in Iowa and the Midwest?
Some of my most favorite natural areas in Iowa are the roadside ditches in Cerro Gordo County, where there are some very unusual prairies. Seems like every time I visit, I see something new. Outside Iowa, I try to get to the Black Hills every year. Mixed-grass prairie, oak savanna, Ponderosa pine forest all mixed together—it’s a wonderful place to wander.
Dave Williams, The Tallgrass Prairie Center Guide to Prairie Restoration in the Upper Midwest