The 81 acres of tallgrass prairie reconstructed here offer a glimpse of an Iowa landscape that had almost vanished by the time Herbert Hoover's grandparents moved here in 1854. Prior to the settlement of West Branch, prairie covered 85 percent of Iowa. Trees were scarce until planted; the Hoovers imported lumber from farther north for construction of the president’s birthplace. Tall native grasses, sprinkled with brilliantly colored wildflowers once covered these rolling hills for as far as the eye could see.
Hoover's Legacy Of Public Lands Conservation
Herbert Hoover, an avid fisherman and proponent of outdoor recreation, saw the value in conserving natural resources. During his presidency, the size of our national forests expanded by more than two million acres, and the land designated for new national parks and monuments increased by 40 percent. In honor of his conservation achievements and his fondness for the outdoors, this prairie offers a quiet and dignified setting to commemorate the life of the 31st president.
This prairie offers over two miles of trails through the reconstructed prairie for hiking, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and nature study. Visitors to the prairie can imagine the pioneers crossing over land where mothers feared they could lose their small children in the 6 to 12 foot tall maze of grasses. A trail map (PDF file) guides visitors through this 81-acre sea of tall grasses and spectacular flowering forbs.
The Herbert Hoover Prairie Trails were designated National Recreational Trails in 1981.
Iowa's prairies became some of the most valuable farmland in the world. The plowed fields of the Miles Farm characterized the immediate landscape during Hoover’s youth. Prairie remnants persisted along the creeks and railroad tracks where Hoover spent many boyhood hours exploring.
Young Bert Hoover: Sod Buster
Hoover enjoyed a keen interest in the natural world and often referred to boyhood experiences: “I was taken for a summer to live with Uncle Pennington Minthorn in Sioux County, Iowa, where he was breaking in a prairie farm. We lived in a sod house and I was privileged to ride the lead horse of a team which was opening the virgin soil.”
The tradeoff is that today less than one percent of prairie land still exists in Hoover's home state. This is one reason the National Park Service restored this historic cultivated field to much of its original splendor. Because their root systems run as deep as the plants are tall, native prairie grasses are well-adapted for controlling runoff and stabilizing areas susceptible to erosion.
The National Park Service reconstructed a tallgrass prairie in 1971 to represent the vast grassland that once covered 85 percent of Iowa. The park planted native species of grasses on land that had been farm fields for more than a century. A prairie garden (PDF file) at the visitor center has examples of tallgrass prairie plants.
The National Park Service uses many techniques to continue the reconstruction of the prairie. "Overseeding" adds native plant seeds into the existing vegetation, while mowing, hand-removal, herbicides, and prescribed fire remove nonnative species or give the native ones a chance to thrive. Volunteers often help park staff with the manual removal of woody plants and invasive weeds from the grassland. The park's prairie management plan (PDF file) outlines strategies for managing the restored tallgrass prairie. Scientific research helps park managers evaluate the reconstruction and maintenance techniques by measuring the overall health of the prairie.
Historically, tallgrass prairies experienced repeated natural fires every five to ten years. These fires were frequent and of low severity, eliminating most of the young woody species that had established since the previous fire and rejuvenating perennial grasses and forbs. A fire management plan (PDF file) allows the park to manage the prairie reconstruction in the most effective and efficient manner, which includes the scientific use of prescribed fire.