The Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge is one of 520 National Wildlife Refuges across America. It is maintained by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It was founded to attempt to bring back the prairie that used to dominate the landscape of the Great Plains.

When Europeans first settled America, there were millions of acres of prairie in the Midwest. The pioneers ignored the land, reasoning that soil that couldn’t support trees would not be arable. Unbeknownst to them, between the bison manure and the cycling of nutrients by prairie grasses, the soil was some of the richest in the world. When settlers finally discovered this fact, the prairie became the breadbasket of America. Unfortunately, this meant that the prairie grasses and the wide variety of animals living in them became endangered. In Iowa, where NSNWR is located, only .1% of the original prairie still exists.

The U.S. Congress authorized the purchase of 8600 acres of land to establish the refuge. New prairie grass was (and continues to be) planted, using the seeds of native varieties collected from the remnants of prairies across Iowa. Controlled burns are performed to help simulate the conditions of the old prairie, where wildfires swept across acres of tall grass regularly. In addition, prairie animals have been put onto the refuge, including bison and elk. A “Prairie Learning Center” exists at the center of the refuge. In this center, there are exhibits related to the prairie and the refuge. You can see a short film about the creation of the center. There is also a conference room where groups can meet.

I went to the refuge on a chilly November day. It was windy and partly cloudy. When the wind blew, the dry grass waved, and the sound reminded me of the surf on a rocky beach. I saw a few bison. The only other place I had seen bison was Yellowstone National Park. Because it was November, everything was dead for the winter, and tan stretched across my vision, but not completely. I could see the roads that go through and by the refuge, and I saw fences that kept the animals in the refuge. It was still amazing. The refuge was not beautiful like, say, Glacier National Park, but all that tall grass was impressive in a way that is hard to convey.

If you want to go to the refuge, it is in Iowa, south of Highway 163 (8 miles south of I-80), about 20 miles east of Des Moines. If you are in the area, I would recommend it as a way to see a different type of landscape than most people have ever seen.

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