NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Not many people are lucky enough to see history being recreated before their eyes.
Now Bethel College students will get the chance—and some will even have the opportunity to participate.
Bethel professor of biology Jon K. Piper has more than two decades’ experience in prairie conservation and restoration, first at The Land Institute in Salina and more recently at Bethel College. For some time, he says, he has had his eye on about 10 acres of campus property directly east of the Warkentin Court and Voth Hall student residences.
There is already a very small experimental planting plot sandwiched between a baseball diamond and corn planted by a local farmer who leases most of the land for that purpose. Piper would like to see the whole area (all but the ball field and mud volleyball court), which also includes some creekside woodland, turned into a restoration project.
“I’ve been dreaming about this for the past several years,” Piper says, “and talking with Advancement staff and Board members about ways we might fund a project.”
Through the Lawrence-based Kansas Land Trust, Piper learned about the Kingsbury Family Foundation, a private foundation with particular interest in projects aimed at protecting the natural resources of the Great Plains, especially plant and animal habitat. Piper wrote a proposal to the foundation that he titled “Studies on the Restoration of Two Indigenous Kansas Ecosystems: Oak Woodland and Tallgrass Prairie.” In early July, he learned that his proposal had been accepted and would be receiving $23,782 from the foundation.
Piper oversees two tracts of native virgin (never plowed) prairie that Bethel owns, but this project is different, he says. “There probably isn’t enough [native] prairie left to protect many endangered native species,” he says. “It’s going to require restoration of original or indigenous habitat. Ecological restoration is an important part of 21st century.”
Another difference is the presence of the woodland, which will also be part of the restoration project. However, perhaps most significant, Piper says, this piece of prairie will be right on the Bethel campus, unlike the Sand Prairie and Broadie Prairie holdings, which are some miles off-site. Not only the campus community, but the larger North Newton and Newton community will be able to watch the experiment unfolding.
A happy confluence of events, says Piper, is the current construction of the “Trail of Two Cities,” the extension of the Sand Creek bike and walking path in Newton to join to join North Newton’s Sand Creek Trail. The extension passes directly in front of the proposed project area.
In fact, it was Sand Creek Trail itself that gave Piper some impetus for the restoration project. “My experience with the Sand Creek Trail volunteers gave me the idea for getting community volunteers to help with the project,” he says. When he recently gave a talk sponsored by the Bethel College Women’s Association about the Sand and Broadie Prairies, he had several people tell him they’d like to volunteer with the new project once it got going.
The project’s location will also make it an important educational resource for the community, whose members will be passing by on foot and bicycles, Piper says. “It will look a bit unkempt for the first few years” while the planned planting schedule of native grasses and perennial flowering plants takes root, “but that equals an opportunity for a teaching moment. It’s amazing what interpretive signs and pamphlets can do. And after a few years, it’s going to look really good, even breathtaking.”
And of course, Bethel College students will benefit. Piper has worked with a number of his biology students over the years on experiments with Sand Prairie, Broadie Prairie and the small tract currently on campus. He expects that to continue in new directions with this project. He also hopes to find a freshman or sophomore who will be willing to stay with the project for several years as a paid assistant.
“When you work with a project over several years, you begin to develop a history. You see and remember the differences from one year to the next,” Piper says. “It becomes more creative, more like a work of art—nature and the human imagination working together.
“You see how [the prairie] changes from year to year. It’s fascinating to have that multi-year perspective. I’d like students to have that opportunity.”
Academically, this is a chance for students to be involved in “two long-term restoration experiments,” Piper says. “They will be doing real science, conducting research that will have published results.”
Once the corn crop has been harvested, Piper’s first steps will be to lay out plots—according to the experiment, the prairie area will be divided into a number of them, each with a different prescribed amount and variety of seed—and then buy the seed and weigh it out accordingly. The first seeding will take place next February or March, probably with the help of campus and community volunteers.
The first tree-planting for the woodland—where Piper hopes to observe the “nurse tree” effect of oak seedlings which may help nurture growth of other trees and plants—may be a project for the annual Service Day at Bethel next April.
The ultimate goal is to restore the area to what it might have been like around 1850, before the ground was first broken. “This is an important part of our Kansas history and legacy,” Piper says—and it will be rebuilding itself where everyone in Newton can see it.