Prairie Patrol: Maintaining Iowa’s Heritage

By Barbara McBreen

Mosquitoes, ticks, pouring rain and 100-degree heat are a few of the elements Matt Monahan endured to clear and clean prairie remnants across Iowa this summer.

Monahan, a junior in forestry, was hired as an intern to work for the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation. He was one of seven Iowa State students working for the foundation. The foundation works to preserve prairies, wetlands, bluff areas and oak savannas across Iowa.

“It’s really cool when you can stand in a field and all you can see is prairie – no roads, no poles, no buildings,” Monahan says. “I enjoy those moments and think about what it was like when you could only see prairie for miles.” Melanie Louis, Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation land stewardship assistant, helped coordinate the students and worksites. She says the students traveled across Iowa, camping near the work sites, spending 10-hours a day, four days a week for 11 weeks clearing invasive plants.

“If we didn’t have these enthusiastic, dedicated, hardworking interns we wouldn’t get a quarter of the work done that we need to do in Iowa,” Louis says. “These students are the future of conservation.”

Summer internships help students network with peers and experience possible career choices. Rick Hall, natural resource ecology and management professor, says he encourages students to pursue as many summer internships as possible.

“It’s probably the best way for them to gauge their future employment to decide what they want to do and what aspect they want to emphasize,” Hall says. Walking through timber, maneuvering chain saws, cutting trees, pulling weeds and burning brush are the jobs students took on to clean prairie areas. This summer’s team named themselves the Shade Slayers because shade from invasive plants and trees prevents prairie plants from thriving.

Prairie once covered 80 percent of the state before Iowa was settled. Today, it is an endangered ecosystem. In the past, wildfires would roll across the prairie and clean out shade plants and provide a fresh start for native plants. Now, prairie restoration requires planned burns, brush removal and lots of labor.

Researchers are finding planting native prairie can help meet Iowa’s water quality goals. Lisa Schulte Moore, associate professor of natural resource ecology and management, says the perennial and diverse character of native prairie, along with the plants’ deep roots and stiff stems, can help hold soil in place and slow water movement, allowing water to infiltrate the soil (read more about Schulte Moore’s work on page 26).

“We always knew prairies were important for conserving Iowa’s wildlife, but we’re beginning to understand the important role native plants can play in improving agriculture,” Schulte Moore says.

Zach Burhenn, a forestry senior, worked alongside Monahan and says the internship helped him understand Iowa’s diverse landscapes.

“I couldn’t believe the incredible uniqueness of Iowa’s natural heritage areas; the diverse prairies with out-of-this-world beauty, oak savannas with branches rippling like streams and forests full of fun and fungi,” Burhenn says.

Protecting natural resources is high on Monahan’s list. As a Fred Foreman Scholar he receives funding to allow him to pursue a number of club and internship experiences rather than relying heavily on hourly work to support his education. Monahan says those experiences have prepared him for a number of positions. He’s open to either forestry or land stewardship after he graduates in December 2016