Irvine donates 77 acres for prairie land

The Irvine Prairie is located six miles northeast of Dysart on 55th Street.

Cathy and David Irvine of rural Dysart had long held a fascination with the prairie lands that once covered Iowa 150 years ago. Today, 99.9 of that natural prairie is long gone, replaced with cities and row crops to feed a hungry nation. The story of these lands continued though for the Irvines to read and marvel over.

“Back in the 80s, a book came out called ‘Where The Sky Began’ by John Madsen and it was about historical Iowa and the prairie,” Irvine said. “My husband and I both read it and it caught our fancy. He loved stories of Iowa’s history. Where Iowa and history intersect was in the land that was in prairie, so we were always interested and loved the thought of Iowa land being in prairie again.”

David died a couple of years ago, leaving Cathy to consider ways to honor her late husband, to create something in his name. The answer came with the very land under their name, as Irvine donated 77 acres to the Iowa Tallgrass Prairie Center at the University of Northern Iowa. Irvine had attended workshops at the center and hoped the students and faculty could help to be transform the land back to the prairie it once was decades and decades ago.

“It was quite a surprise and I honestly couldn’t believe what she was saying,” Laura Jackson, the Director of the Iowa Tallgrass Prairie Center said. “Her vision was something I’ve never witnessed before. This is a unique situation because of the high quality of the land.”

Working with the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, the land was granted a conservation easement restricting future land use as the land will be maintained as prairie by the Tallgrass Praire Center. Currently, 8.5 acres is being developed as part of several planned phases. Over the next several years 18.5 acres a year will be worked on to expand the prairie.

“This is a wonderful oppurtunity for us and we are excited to work on this challenging project,” Jackson said. “We hope people will enjoy this land and it can be an asset to the community.”

UNI students and faculty will carry out the seeding and restoration with Irvine providing the funds. Students will maintain and check on the land, providing them an educational opportunity Irvine hopes is available to all levels of education.

“We all benefit from Iowa’s soil and beauty,” Irvine said. “Having some land restored to the way it was before serves as reminder of prairie’s beauty. There’s also a component of education for the area schools and college students can use it as a learning lab. They can do soil tests, count plants in a certain area and do research on what conditions are best for planting. Elementary school kids can come identify flowers and animals or start seeds at school to transplant here. Math units can count plants.”

Union High students are already scheduled to tour the 8.5 acres available on Wednesday, Sept. 26 for a science class. Irvine also looks forward to tagging monarch butterflies that will visit the area and hope other enthusiasts will be drawn to the prairie for similar reasons.

“This land belongs to everyone and I would like to see people come and enjoy,” Irvine said.