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Center links nature, agriculture

By Staff | Nov 13, 2009

The Prairie Heritage Center located near Peterson. The center sits on 160 acres of Little Sioux River Valley. The complex is owned by the O'Brien County Conservation Board.

PETERSON – O’Brien County Conservation’s Prairie Heritage Center, located along Iowa Highway 10 between Sutherland and Peterson, holds a plethora of environmental educational opportunities.

The center, which took 10 years of planning, opened in November 2005. Since opening, the center has seen 17,000 to 19,000 people come through its doors each year.

“Each year our numbers have continued to increase,” stated Naturalist Charlene Ellyea. Ellyea has played a key role in bringing the center together from its early stages of design and fundraising.

She continues to serve the county, educating, programming and writing grants for the center. Ellyea pointed out that the center sits on 160 acres of Little Sioux River Valley. The complex is owned by the conservation board. That parcel is also part of a 1,900-acre tract of land, called Waterman Prairie Complex, owned by the conservation board, Iowa Department of Natural Resources, The Nature Conservancy and Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, all setaside for environmental education and preservation.

“Contrary to popular belief, much of this land was purchased through Iowa’s Resource Enhancement and Protection fund,” Ellyea said, “which means that although the land is owned by government agencies, it remains on the tax roles.”

Bison enjoy the quiet and solitude of the back pastureland at the heritage center. They can be viewed by visitors from an observation deck.

The center itself is a 4,786-square-foot building that includes a display area, offices and a classroom. The building has a full basement, providing the center with ample storage space currently and an indoor archery range in the future.

Interactive displays on the main floor provide optimal hands on learning experience for visitors.

The center itself sits on 160 acres, owned by the conservation board, which features hiking trails. Visitors may also enjoy canoeing, areas for hunting, fishing in a stocked pond or just observing the natural wildlife.

Visitors may step onto the observation deck to enjoy breathtaking scenery and watch the center’s herd of bison as it grazes the natural prairie.

Over 200 species of native grasses and wildflowers exist in the tall grass prairie ecosystem. Prairie Fire plays an important role in this system. The grounds are sectioned out and kept on a four-year burn cycle. Native grasses, being tolerant of fire, survive and thrive when burned, while non-natives are destroyed leaving natural prairie growth.

Burning also releases nutrients into the soil and allows seed pods to burst releasing their seeds.

“We (the center) like to think of ourselves as the link between nature and agriculture,” Ellyea said. Through education they hope to help others understand how native species can improve the land and how native animals and humans can co-exist.

When natural prairie returns, so do the native animals, insects and invertebrates, Ellyea said. Short-eared or burrowing owls recently made a comeback on the natural prairie area. Other rare animals seen in the area include bald eagles, which roost in the area from mid-December through late-February.

River otters can sometimes be seen on the banks of the Little Sioux River, which runs through the property.

The Audubon Society also uses the area for an annual bird count.

The center hosts a number of traveling exhibits offering “new” learning experiences. Some past exhibits have included exhibits on songbirds and mountain lions.

The center, which is free to the public, is open year round Wednesday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.

For more information visit the center’s web site at: www.prairieheritagecenter.org.

Contact Robyn Kruger by e-mail at rangerob@hickorytech.net.

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