close-up of prairie grasses

About the Prairie Region


The prairie region is demarcated by the vast North American grassland that once overspread the central part of the continent from the Rocky Mountains to Illinois and from Mexico to Canada.  At Grinnell College’s Center for Prairie Studies, we are especially interested in the easternmost portion of this region, the so-called tallgrass prairie.  We believe that examining the prairie region from multiple points of view, and linking what we learn from those various perspectives, will enrich our knowledge and appreciation of our location.

Evanescent Prairie, a Center for Prairie Studies publication, describes the history and future of prairies on the Iowa landscape.

Campus Prairie Landscaping

The Center for Prairie Studies has been collaborating with Facilities Management and CERA since 2000 to incorporate prairie plantings and gardens into our campus landscape. Maintenance of the prairie landscaping includes annual prescribed fire, brush-cutting and mowing, and hand-pulling invasive species.

The prairie landscaping adds structure and diversity to the turf-grass-dominated area, creating an aesthetically pleasing and functioning urban ecosystem, providing soil stabilization and filtering surface runoff.  In addition to the aesthetic, functional, and historical aspects of having prairie on campus, the plantings serve a pedagogical purpose as well and are used by many courses for research or study.

Jewel Box Prairie #1

The Harris Center prairie planting was sparked by a student initiative asking for less lawn and more prairie on campus.  Driven mainly by students with help from the Center for Prairie Studies and Facilities Management, this completely herbicide-free planting was established in the spring of 2021. Designed by horticulturalist Kelly D. Norris, this planting brings life and beauty to campus. A habitat for pollinators, insects, and small mammals, this planting, named the Jewel Box Prairie #1, is designed to have a long, colorful blooming season, from the red plume of prairie smoke in May to the purple tufts of rough blazing star in July, to the yellow blooms of stiff goldenrod which signal the end of summer. The prairie is situated near the Harris Center where three sidewalks converge. 

Area Public Prairies

The City of Grinnell’s official logo is “Jewel of the Prairie,” and prairie landscaping, butterfly gardens, and rain gardens can be found at Arbor Lake Park, Summer Street Park, Drake Community Library, Grinnell Regional Medical Center, local businesses, and within residential landscaping around town.

Explore Poweshiek County and Jasper County parks and preserves by reading the Center for Prairie Studies’ publications Nature Preserves Near Grinnell, Guide to Prairie Sites Near Grinnell, IA and use the Poweshiek County Prairie Roadside Tour and Iowa Prairie Network Prairie Locator to locate additional prairies in the area. The newest public prairie in the vicinity, which is not yet listed in any of our publications, is the Uhlenhopp Arboretum, located in western Jasper County and maintained by the Jasper County Conservation.


Addressing sustainability concerns must take place at many levels simultaneously: global, national, regional, and local.  Arguably, though, the foundation is at the local level, the level of community

Aldo Leopold wrote, “All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts.”   While we might compete with others in our community, fundamentally a community, when it is healthy, is an arena of cooperation.  It is the easiest place to identify problems, the most likely scale in which every voice can be heard, and the best context in which to achieve transparency in decision-making. 

If we then extend the idea of community, as Leopold goes on to urge in his essay “The Land Ethic,” from humans to “the soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land,” we will position ourselves to start the hard work of achieving sustainability in the place where we live. Grinnell College’s Center for Prairie Studies is committed to working toward this goal.


The matter of caring for a place is directly tied to the second theme, sustainability.  Around the world, people are asking whether our modern way of life is sustainable — environmentally, socially, and economically. 

A host of environmental problems, from local ones like water pollution to global ones like climate change, point to ways in which our lifestyles are undermining the very life-support systems on which we all depend. Equally troubling are threats to social well-being from various forms of social injustice (from income inequality to intolerance of difference), crime, war, and terrorism. 

Our economic system itself – industrial/post-industrial capitalism — has shown signs of fragility with regard to such things as the international banking system, the prospect of “peak oil,” and the challenges of swelling numbers of environmental and political refugees. 

As Peggy Barlett and Geoffrey Chase have written, “the process of sustainability begins with an awakening to emerging problems caused by conventional norms of behavior (both institutional and personal) and then a discernment of new directions  … .”   Growing numbers of people are convinced that we must find new ways of living together that will achieve environmental, social, and economic sustainability. 

Like every region, the prairie region faces special sustainability issues, including chemical pollution and other concerns related to industrial agriculture, issues with immigration, depopulation of the countryside, and dying small towns.  Those of us who live in the prairie region, even those who plan to move on, must become aware of these issues and learn how to address them. 

Achieving sustainability is the ethical imperative of our times.


Running through this diverse and varied set of topics and perspectives are three themes which we take to be especially relevant to thinking about the prairie region. 

First is the idea of place.  Today, the forces of globalization, abetted by the possibility of instant communication and the easy movement of people and things around the world, are eroding the distinctiveness of local and even regional character.  We must ask whether a connection to place and a sense of place are any longer of importance in human life. 

Some argue that their importance is waning, that we are all becoming global citizens.  We take issue with that view and side with Wes Jackson, founder of The Land Institute in Kansas, who says that it is crucial for us to maintain a special connection to wherever we live (even if we change locations during our lifetimes), to know it and value it in order that we can better fulfill our responsibility to help care for the people, the land, and the other living things in that place.

In one way or another, everything the Center does revolves around a conversation about place, both the prairie region as a whole and its many constituting places.

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