We come and go, but the land is always here. And the people who love and understand it are the people to whom it belongs—for a little while. – Willa Cather
Cathy Irvine’s love of the land first sprouted in her early years as she grew up exploring under a wide-open country sky. Raised on a farm, the daily dependence upon the natural world and the hours spent working in it instilled a deep sense of awe toward the land.
As she grew older, that fondness for the natural world and the constant pull of the outdoors developed into a sense of responsibility in stewarding it properly. One dream she and her husband, David, shared was to restore 77 acres of cropland on their property in Benton County into a flourishing prairie.
“Prairie has always resonated with us,” Cathy says. “We read ‘Where the Sky Began’ by John Madson, which tells what it was like in Iowa before settlement. It talks about riding across the prairies, settlers only being able to see above the prairie grasses because they were on horseback. It just sparked our interest and love for native Iowa landscapes.”
They wanted others to be able to encounter the wildness of Iowa prairie, too. But the idea of restoring such a large piece of land to prairie was a daunting one. For years, it remained a vague hope far on the horizon — something to undertake when the timing was right.
In honor of her late husband, Cathy decided it was time to finally make their dream for the land a reality. A former teacher, she reached out to the Tallgrass Prairie Center at the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) with interest in donating the land for educational purposes, allowing students to learn through the restoration process.
“It was the educational component that could come from donating our land — giving the students an opportunity to work and find projects — that really sparked my attention,” Cathy said. “I want others to discover that love of the land, just being out in it and wanting to preserve it.”
INHF President Joe McGovern speaks at the dedication of Irvine Prairie. - Photo courtesy of the UNI Foundation.
Cathy wanted to consider all of the layers of protection the property might need well into the future. With foresight, she wanted to ensure that the land stayed out of development and away from undesired agricultural practices.
To give her land a broader horizon, Cathy turned to INHF for a solution. Together, Cathy and INHF worked to determine the best possible option for her land while still giving UNI the freedom to use the land for educational purposes. To ensure it always remained a prairie, INHF placed a conservation easement on the land, restricting its use and implementing a 5-year restoration plan to see Cathy’s dream come to completion.
“Cathy has this amazing vision for her land,” says Erin Van Waus, INHF conservation easement director. “We wanted to come alongside her and help protect that vision, no matter who owns it.”
Now, others will be able to encounter the wildness of Iowa prairie, too. As the Tallgrass Prairie Center spends the next five years growing and maintaining the prairie, UNI students and nearby communities can learn hands-on about restoration and the natural world — planting seeds of appreciation for Iowa’s natural landscapes and a desire to see them protected.
“That’s the exciting part for us,” Van Waus says. “We get to see this land in action, we get to see it restored and seeded to prairie, but we also get to see the land used by students and their chance to learn through the process of restoration.”