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This place is worth the trip

July 2, 2017
Kevin Williams - Grundy County Conservation Director , Reinbeck Courier

I took a relaxing trip last Sunday. Well, perhaps relaxing is not the most accurate word to use with five grandkids ranging from 7 years to 6 months. Enjoyable is certainly accurate, however.

My wife and I, our three children and grandchildren visited the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge and Prairie Learning Center near Prairie City. It had been quite some time since we had visited this area. I recall Shannon commenting that she had been there last in 7th grade.

As we walked around the facility (we walked - two of the grandsons run more than they walk right now), more than once my daughter remarked "this is like up at the Grundy County Heritage Museum did you steal this idea?"

Article Photos

One of the few times the author’s grandkids slowed down for a picture at the Neal Smith Prairie Learning Center and Refuge.
Photo by Kevin Williams

Now, I don't like to hear one of my kids asking if I stole anything. Yes, there are many aspects of the learning center that provided inspirations as the Ag Hall exhibits in Morrison took shape.

Have you visited that wildlife refuge recently? Ever? It is worth the trip. To think that we have this attraction right here in Iowa is truly a blessing and amazing. And to think that the acquisition of that area started as a place to build a reservoir and nuclear power plant.

I grew up on a farm just a few miles north of this area and trapped portions of the Walnut Creek that runs through there and would have been the source of that reservoir. When the plans for a power plant ceased, a prairie learning center and refuge idea took shape. It was championed by then Congressman Neal Smith to see the idea become reality.

The Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge and Prairie Learning Center was created by an act of Congress in 1990, to re-construct tall grass prairie and restore oak savanna on 8,654 acres of the Walnut Creek watershed and to provide a major environmental education facility focusing on prairie, oak savanna, and human interaction.

The refuge, bordering the southwest city limits of Prairie City, Iowa, began from a core 3,600 acres that was purchased from that electric utility company after that proposed nuclear power plant was rejected. Through the purchase of land from willing sellers, the refuge will eventually occupy over 44% of the Walnut Creek watershed!

The refuge has been designated a Fish and Wildlife Service Land Management and Research Demonstration Area. It facilitates development, testing, teaching, publishing, and demonstration of state-of-the-art management techniques for fish, wildlife, and plant conservation.

The Prairie Learning Center facilities include a visitor center with classrooms, exhibit area, theater, and bookstore. Miles of paved trails radiate from the center, and an auto tour through the 740-acre bison/elk enclosure is open all year. Teacher workshops, birding, hunting, and nature watching are some of the outdoor activities featured for thousands of visitors each year.

Our whole family enjoyed the visit some for the very first time and others after quite some time. I enjoyed the roughly four mile trip into the refuge before arriving at the learning center. The hard-surface roadway and building was planned in such a way that it melts into the prairie landscape rather than protrude from it.

We spent only a couple of hours there and that included the auto tour through the bison/elk enclosure (they roam only about 800 of the almost 6,000 existing area).

Whether you have never been or it's been a long time, I would highly recommend a visit to this place with our kids and/or grandkids!



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