Amid ‘the most altered landscape in America,’ this 100-acre plot in Johnson County remains rich and wild

Before the first Europeans arrived in what would become Iowa, most of the land here was covered by wild prairie plants. Bison and elk once grazed in the northwest and central regions, and black bears populated the woodlands and brush in the eastern corridor.

Around 85 percent of Iowa’s landscape was prairie, but today a fraction of a percent remains.

“In Iowa, we have the most altered landscape in America. The face of the landscape has changed more than any other state in the nation, due to agriculture and urbanization,” said Larry Gullett, the executive director of the Johnson County Conservation Board (JCCB). “Primarily due to agriculture.”

When Gullett moved to Iowa City in 2013, JCCB staff and board members quickly told him about a 100-acre plot of land north of Solon. Then-owners Malinda and John Reilly had never plowed the land.

A field of brome grass, a non-native pasture grass, atop the paha ridge at the Malinda Reif Reilly Fen and Prairie on Tuesday, July 19, 2022. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

“To find land in Iowa, open land, that has never been plowed, is like finding a needle in a haystack,” Gullett said. “All of those soils, and the bacteria and microorganisms associated with soil that grow prairie plants, are still intact.”

The property has been in Malinda’s family since the 1900s, and for 50 years, they resisted pressure to convert it for row cropping. While other natural landscapes have disappeared in the state, this prairie and wetland habitat has survived because of Malinda and her family’s commitment. When she passed in 2015, her husband John contacted JCCB to turn the land into a natural preserve in her honor.

A native bergamot wildflower. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

John sold the land to the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation in 2018, and it transferred to the JCCB in 2021. It cost half a million dollars of the county’s conservation bond, plus another $400,000 in grant funding. Now, the Malinda Reif Reilly Fen and Prairie is home to over 225 plant species, some of which can’t be found anywhere else in the county.

“Geologically the area is very cool, very unique,” Gullett said. “When you drive by and look at it, to everybody it just looks like a typical Iowa landscape.”

The area is also home to hundreds of insects. Baby grasshoppers jump out with every step, bees and butterflies land on the pink and purple native wildflowers, and from the beautiful overlook atop the paha ridge, you can see neighboring cornfields and silos, powerlines and fences.

The view from atop the paha ridge. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

A paha ridge has history in its soil. They were formed during the Wisconsin glaciation period approximately 75,000 to 11,000 years ago. Pahas contain pre-Illinoian glacial till underneath layers of loess, a mixture of windblown sand, silt and other calcareous materials and minerals. Beneath the nonnative pasture grass, it’s actually a sand dune.

“There are sandy deposits on top of high points,” Gullett said. “That’s a giant sand dune.”

At the bottom of the paha ridge is the fen, a type of wetland that was once a common feature of the Iowa landscape. Rainwater and groundwater flows through the sandy deposits on the paha but not through the dense clay underneath. The water pools on the surface, forming the fen. Many of these in Iowa have been drained for agriculture.

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A skid-steer loader drives through thick thrush beside the farm area. – Jason Smith/Little Village

The prairie has been farmed over the years. Malinda’s family used half the property for raising cattle, organic hay production and occasional corn and soybeans crop. They never used chemicals or pesticides, but some biodiversity was lost.

The interior fencing that contained the livestock impeded plant distribution and wildlife movement. The fencing functions as a windbreak, so seeds pile up around the posts, leading to thick brush and trees. It’s impossible to remove the fencing without causing damage to the plant community. JCCB conservationists can prevent soil damage, which will help the native plants recover.

Fences blocking the movement of plants and animals. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

As grazing degraded the original plant community, non-native species like Canada thistle, bull thistle and brome grass invaded the prairie.

JCCB burned 25 acres last spring and have another burn scheduled for the fall. These burns are timed to place stress of non-native plant development and stimulate growth for native plants, which have adapted to prairie fires. The burns eliminate the thatch build-up and blacken the soil.

“It gives the prairie plants a better chance to flourish and germinate, because the prairie seeds like to germinate when the soil is warm,” said Dave Wehde, a natural resource manager for the JCCB. “This is really a true restoration.”

Bushes of the native bergamot wildflower, a mint species. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

In addition to removing non-native competition, the burns also kill brush, trees and woody plants that provide shade. In general, prairie plants thrive better in full sunlight. They will carefully remove the invasive species while leaving the native species, like burr oak trees, at the site, Wehde said.

Many invasive species can’t be completely eradicated, only reduced and managed. Canada thistle, for example, is a perennial species that regrows from the root stock every spring. The thistle has an extensive root system, and its seed bank can survive in the soil for up to 25 years. Canada thistle originally immigrated from prairies of Asia, instead of Canada, and it has also adapted to wildfires. So, conservations have to burn the area to make the seeds germinate before using a selective herbicide to attack its root system.

The native hoary vervain wildflower. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

Bull thistle, however, is a biennial species with a two-year lifespan. Its seed bank is only five years, so the thistle can be managed by cutting it down before it seeds. In either case, the restoration effort could take 10 to 15 years or longer, Wehde estimates.

“I’ve been working on some native sites here at Kent Park that I started, oh my God, back in 1988, and we’re still working on them,” he said.

But they’re already seeing progress. The fires are waking up dormant seeds resting in the soil. This year, they spotted a native shooting star plant. It was only one flower, but it hadn’t been catalogued there before. JCCB plans to conduct public seed collections and plant those native species in other prairies.

The Malinda Reif Reilly Fen and Prairie in Johnson County, Iowa. — Jason Smith/Little Village

However, they have to be conservative with controlled burns. Some insect communities, like butterflies and moths, lay their eggs in plant stems and leaves. A widespread fire would exterminate an entire generation of insects. So, JCCB only burns small chunks of land at a time. Another burn is scheduled for this fall.

While JCCB has started mowing a system of firebreaks, it won’t develop a trail system. There may be some walking paths in the grazed farm area, but trails through the wild prairie might threaten the endangered, rare plant species.

Rows of farmland to the right. — Jason Smith/Little Village

The Malinda Reif Reilly fen and prairie is open to the public. However, the area is a preserve, not a high-use recreation area. Collecting any flowers or plant materials is prohibited without a permit from JCCB. Permits are typically only granted to researchers.

“We treat all our areas that we manage in Johnson County … as living museums,” Wehde said. “It’s a beautiful site, you know. We want the public to enjoy it.”

Although there aren’t trails, anyone can explore the area. Gullett advises people to tread carefully and respect the natural features. A small group won’t damage the prairie, but a large group walking single file could have a negative impact.

JCCB will build a parking lot within the next year, so visitors won’t have to park on the shoulder. They’re currently evaluating the parking lot’s location to help prevent erosion and runoff, as to not damage Mill Creek’s water quality. They’ll also install signage to provide information about the area’s special features.

The prairie is wild. Tall, thick grass reaches chest height, and it feels like wading through the ocean waves. It’ll scratch and scrape any exposed skin. Birds nests are hidden under the grass, so hapless explorers who gets too close will have a swarm of squawking, angry birds circling overhead.

The fen wetland to the left, with chest-high grass, and the bottom of the paha ridge to the right. – Adria Carpenter/Little Village

And the birds will watch, unblinking, from the fence posts and power lines as you retreat. And once you’ve escaped to your car, you may find dozens of dog ticks crawling across your clothes, searching for any opening to burrow into your skin. It’s best to hike through the hay fields and the paha ridge. Wear long pants, and bring tick repellant, sunscreen and water.

The untamed, wild nature of the Malinda Reif Reilly Fen and Prairie is part of its allure. Centuries ago, the tallgrass prairie region had richness not only in soils, but in its wildlife, the herds of bison and prairie chickens, the hundreds of amphibians, reptiles and insects.

“All of that has been eliminated and gone, and it only exists in small, isolated fragments,” said Gullett. “So anytime we have the opportunity as conservationists to protect and preserve these few remaining relics that are left, we do that.”