The Ashton Research Prairie: A living classroom and lab

aerial view of Ashton Research prairie
Aerial view of ARP

The Ashton Research Prairie (ARP) is located at the site of the Ashton Cross Country Course on the University of Iowa campus. While ARP is the result of a collaborative effort between the Office of Sustainability and the Environment (OSE), Iowa Athletics, environmental sciences units, and several faculty from across the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the College of Engineering, the idea began with the vision of a determined Environmental Science major, Megan Lenss. In 2018, Megan approached OSE, Professor of Biology Andrew Forbes, and Earth and Environmental Sciences instructor Mike Fallon, and asked how the UI could restore a prairie on campus. After many conversations, the Athletics groundskeeper, Tony Senio, championed the idea in his department. Athletics provided the space for a future prairie, and the idea took root.

This cross-campus effort is part of a broader vision detailed in the 2030 sustainability goals for the university to create living laboratories across campus in order to increase opportunities for students and researchers to use the UI campus as an educational and research laboratory for the simultaneous improvement of campus sustainability and ecosystems. Several courses at the university currently use the prairie to teach or have plans to conduct research or applied coursework at the prairie in the spring semester.

As the Prairie Restoration Project continues to grow, we encourage faculty, staff and students who may want to engage with ARP in their courses, conduct research, visit the prairie, or volunteer to reach out to the Office of Sustainability and the Environment. It is our hope that this project, along with other planned living laboratories across campus, will enrich the opportunities of our campus community by offering applied opportunities for research and discovery.

Background: Until the early 1840's, the entirety of Iowa was blanketed in grasses and wildflowers, a landscape known as the Tallgrass Prairie. This vast expanse of wildflowers and grasses up to twelve feet tall was home to indigenous peoples and astonishingly diverse wildlife. 

With the arrival of Euro-American settlers, the once rich and nutrient-dense soil became over-exploited, through a combination of poor farming methods and industrialized agricultural practices. Today, less than 0.01% of native Tallgrass Prairie remains in Iowa. As a public institution serving the greater good, the UI is beginning to face the task of reversing the centuries-long degradation of our vital natural resources. The Prairie Reconstruction Project at Ashton Cross Country Course is essential to this effort, providing hands-on educational experiences for our students, while preserving a rare native Iowa landscape.

Reconstruction to Date: Phase I of the Prairie Reconstruction Project involves the conversion of a one-acre plot of unused fallow pasture land to a native prairie. Prairie plant seed used in the reconstruction is biogeographically referenced, assuring that it is native to Johnson County, Iowa.

Planned Prairie Reconstruction for 2021: During the current academic year, the UI will expand the current prairie by six acres, using $7,500 in financial support from an EPA Farmer-to-Farmer Cooperative Agreement grant, whose PI is Professor Craig Just of the College of Engineering, who teaches in the Environmental Science Program in CLAS. Dr. Just’s grant is focused on improvements in water quality, habitat, and environmental education.

Our partners: We owe special thanks to the UI Department of Athletics for permission to reconstruct ARP at the Ashton Cross Country Course. UI Student Government provided a $1,500 grant, used to purchase native plant seed for this reconstruction, for which we are deeply grateful. Finally, we wish to thank the Iowa Native Plant Society for awarding us $500 to help design and manufacture educational signage.

To learn more about how you can incorporate ARP in your research and teaching, please contact:

Stratis Giannakouros
Director, Office of Sustainability and the Environment