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Long-term project is bringing prairie back to hard to get to places of the Loess Hills

  • 6/6/2023 2:13:00 PM
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“Limb’n and chunk’n in pieces your swampers can move,” yelled Doug Chafa in what sounded like secret code known only to the 30 or so select people who happened to be dressed in chainsaw chaps, long sleeve shirts, hard hats and gloves.

Today’s project was to clear cedar trees off a portion of Turin Wildlife Area east of the RT Reese Homestead that would allow the native remnant prairie to return to the hills. Here, work is done by hand – it’s labor intensive and slow – the goal is to clear an acre, maybe two, before noon.

Chafa, wildlife biologist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, had just completed the pre-cut meeting that focused on health and safety, and on how the work would unfold. Water jugs were loaded onto the three UTVs and they began shuttling workers from the parking lot to the base of the hills where they would hike the rest of the way, chainsaw slung over one shoulder; fuel can and water bottle in tow.

Welcome to the Great Race Against Shrubs and Shade (GRASS), a pre-event that is part of the 46th Annual Loess Hills Prairie Seminar.

“We can’t get equipment in this area, it all has to be done by hand,” Chafa said. “The goal is to get the cedars out of the prairie and allow the sunlight to hit the ground. The remnant prairie will begin to show. In the hills, it’s been wildly successful.

“It’s remarkable how fast prairies can heal,” he said.

Cedars are targeted now because when cut below their lowest branch, they will not regrow. They are cut into small pieces and placed in small piles, plainly explained by the limb’n and chunk’n directive.

Chafa has been removing cedar trees from the Loess Hills prairie since 2010. Cedar by cedar, year by year, the prairie is slowly returning. Much of the original plant diversity is still there, waiting to the opportunity to return.

“Under the cedars, there may be two species found, but after removal and the sun hits the ground, the plants return. The remnant prairie is here, we can see that,” he said.

The hills are extremely diverse, showing as many as 360 different prairie plant species, including being on the eastern edge of the range for certain species not found in other places in Iowa.

Standing on the side of a bluff, Chafa points to prairie turnip, locoweed, yucca, downy painted cup, Scarlett guava, nine-anther dalea, silverleaf scurf pea all growing where cedars once stood.

Huffing and puffing, hiking up the steep slope, the sounds of busy chainsaws is coming from four different hillsides and ridges.

This annual event also serves as a hands-on learning opportunity for college interns and those new to the conservation field, many of which just completed their saw training earlier in the week.  

Cutting finished by 11:30 a.m. before the heat of the day and everyone gathers in the shade near the parking area, cooled by a southern breeze, for the “After Action Review.” Each team member reports what they learned or saw or felt from the experience.

Loess Hills Prairie Seminar

Now in its 46th year, the Loess Hills Prairie Seminar aims to balance the delicate ecology of the hills with the public recreation and enjoyment of the area.

Loess is a unique landform created thousands of years ago. The Loess Hills is one of Iowa’s true wilderness areas, stretching from Fremont County to Plymouth County. More than 100 people, from elementary school age to senior citizens attended the seminar.