Biology Statement on Proposed Grade School in Anderson Prairie

The following letter was written by the Luther College Biology Department in response to a proposal from the college administration (and hence represents only the opinion of biology department and not the college).  This proposal considers entering into an agreement with the Decorah Community School District to allow construction of an elementary school building, playgrounds, parking, and lawn grass on 7 acres of college lands. The site currently under consideration is a 28-year old tallgrass prairie reconstruction known as Anderson Prairie. To learn more about the prairie, visit: http://www.luther.edu/biology/facilities-natural-areas/natural/andersonprairie/ or to learn about land stewardship implemented by college faculty, students, and staff to manage Anderson Prairie and similar natural areas on college land: http://www.luther.edu/biology/facilities-natural-areas/land-stewardship/

November 21, 2016

Luther College was ‘...founded where river, woodland, and prairie meet, we practice joyful stewardship of the resources that surround us...
(Luther College Mission Statement)

President Carlson,

One of the draws of Luther is the surrounding natural areas that engage the view and minds of our young college students. These areas form part of our identity, as seen in the college’s mission statement, quoted above and in brochures and in tours, and in a recent article that highlighted the classroom use of natural areas by departments across campus (Luther Alumni magazine, Fall 2015). In particular, Anderson Prairie is the face of our natural areas, given its proximity to our main entrance and high visibility from campus. The current proposal to develop a portion of this prairie will sacrifice our reputation and strong academic standing as a model for conservation and stewards of native biodiversity and water resources.

Iowa has lost over 99.9% of its prairies: plowed, developed, and paved. To combat this loss of our natural heritage, conservation biologists and restoration ecologists began the painstaking process of learning to reconstruct the functions and values of prairies. Anderson Prairie is one such effort at prairie reconstruction. Luther has a long history of prairie restoration and using the process in our classes; the original section of Anderson was planted to prairie to stop erosion from water runoff; the remaining section of Anderson was planted to improve the native diversity for its classroom and research use.

Anderson Prairie and our other natural areas are known across the state and cannot be missed by campus visitors and prospective students. In 2013, Luther hosted the Iowa Prairie Conference, with 183 participants from across the state, including 53 undergraduate students from 12 institutions. During the conference, Luther students with majors in Biology, Environmental Studies, English, and Chemistry led participants on tours of Anderson Prairie. They highlighted the process of restoration, the many hours of management put in by the land stewardship interns, and the hundreds of plant and animal species that had been restored to the site.

While Luther has been setting an example with Anderson Prairie’s habitat restoration, the surrounding county and state have regressed in their protection of native grasslands. It is often difficult to make the argument for keeping our natural habitats when economic pressures are high. In our classes, we teach students about weighing the benefits of native grasslands in the long view, in an attempt to provide a long-term perspective on short-term choices that seem to represent ‘Progress’. Over 7,000 acres have been lost in Winneshiek County from the federal Conservation Reserve Program (from 2009 to 2014, the most recent data available). If we allow Anderson Prairie to be paved over, we set an example for the surrounding community that diversity and its benefits are for sale.

In addition, the move indicates a dangerous precedent. The current request by the school board is approximating 7 acres of prairie loss. However, it seems inevitable that when new development needs are an issue with the school board, they will look to the rest of Anderson for their development. The college already has long-standing plans to expand Baker Village into a portion of the prairie, resulting in Anderson Prairie being squeezed from both sides.

Short summaries of specific importance:

Land Stewardship Plan

The College’s Land Stewardship Plan was written by a committee of faculty, staff, students, and community members and approved by the Board of Regents in 2010. The plan is a commitment by the college to “responsible land stewardship…and to a sustainable future by creating awareness and nurturing a connection to place”. The plan highlights that the ‘landscape itself [is] a classroom”. The current proposal to the Decorah Community School District is not in accordance with the Land Stewardship Plan.

Land Stewardship and Natural Areas Goals:

  • To support the educational mission of the college,
  • To nurture a connection with place by providing opportunities to explore, enjoy, care for, and contemplate the natural world,
  • To fulfill our responsibility as land stewards by sustaining and restoring the ecological communities placed in our care.

Environmental Issues: Ecosystem Services provided and Biodiversity supported

Anderson Prairie provides significant infiltration and water quality improvement to water draining from Ridge Road, Venneheim, surrounding housing development and farm fields. In the past four summers, the portion of Anderson Prairie nearest College Drive and Ridge Road has been flooded for at least one month. In 2016, the area was flooded with standing water from late August to mid-October. A 7-acre building site would remove this infiltration and increase the amount of water to the city sewer system and to the Upper Iowa River. Other ecosystem services provided by reconstructed prairies include carbon sequestration and improved air quality. Anderson Prairie plays a significant role in improving local biodiversity. For example, over 200 migrant monarch butterflies were banded in a two hour period in September, 2016. At least 5 native species recorded in Anderson Prairie have not been recorded elsewhere in the state. The prairie is densely populated by migratory birds for nesting and feeding habitat.

Classroom Uses

As the most accessible prairie on campus, Anderson Prairie is used throughout the fall and spring semesters by classes and students in majors across the campus (e.g., Biology, Environmental Studies, English, Education, Art, among others). The site is one of the primary sites used by the Discovery Camp students in summer programs. Visitors from other institutions commonly use Anderson Prairie and Hickory Ridge Woods in conferences and meetings based in Baker Commons.

Admissions Issues

Luther is unique among our competitors that we have a restored prairie directly adjacent to our campus, with trails and outdoor classroom space directly connected to our indoor classrooms and residential housing. Anderson Prairie and Hickory Ridge Woods are the only natural areas that can be walked to within a short admissions visit. Even before this proposal was put forward, we have had many students tell us their reason for attending Luther was our setting and close contact with natural areas. Taking this space away may cause us to lose these students, if they don’t see the direct connection to campus, or hear of Luther’s disregard for the natural areas by developing them. We have heard from alumni and donors to the college who might reconsider their planned donations if we choose to develop Anderson Prairie.

Greenspace and Connection to Nature

Proposed development of a large building and parking lot, school buses, and school children may make college students take the long way around or avoid Anderson Prairie and Hickory Ridge Woods all together. In the day and age of constant connection to electronic devices, students need spaces to disconnect and breathe deep of fresh air. Anderson Prairie is the most accessible site for students who are new to exploring the natural areas as it is directly visible from the campus grounds, especially Baker Village and College Apartments.

Research Issues

Research by Luther students has been ongoing in Anderson Prairie for the past 22 years. The site is already small (only 25 acres) as a prairie, so to make the most of this small size, experimental research is spread across the site. As prairie becomes fragmented and reduced in size by development, the overall value decreases because of edge effects and restrictions to only species that can survive in smaller patches.

In Conclusion…

There is appeal in attempting to work with the school board to solve their problem for a school site. Potential for collaboration among our education department and majors has been used as one of the reasons for consideration of their request. However, Luther has many other ways that we can benefit the school system and our education majors that are not at such a high cost to the majority of our students and surrounding community. One possibility might be to volunteer to raise funds and help construct a new prairie on the final site they develop, and so their kids can be involved in the process of creating a prairie, rather than lose the value of Anderson Prairie as already outlined. In their own words, the School Board’s preferred site is in the middle of Decorah at the current elementary school site. In entertaining the conversations with Luther, the Board has directed their efforts away from where their focus should be.

While we recognize the close relationship that Luther has with other institutions in Decorah, and the inherent value we place on its outstanding educational system, granting the use of prairie space negatively impacts the educational mission of the college. The proposal to site an elementary school in Anderson Prairie goes against the environmental values the college espouses, the academic mission and uses of our natural areas, and the sense of place that draws many students specifically to the college.

Anderson Prairie showing 7 acre areas
Anderson Prairie September 2014