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Prairie projects reflect tradition, produce new findings

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Bethel College professor of biology Jon Piper’s interest in prairie preservation and restoration puts him solidly within tradition.

Piper recently learned that his second grant proposal to the Kingsbury Family Foundation, for the prairie restoration project he began on campus a year ago, has been funded. To date, the project has received more than $36,000 from the foundation.

Kingsbury is a private foundation, run by two sisters in memory of their father, with particular interest in projects aimed at protecting the natural resources of the Great Plains, especially plant and animal habitat.

“Ecological restoration is an important part of 21st-century conservation,” Piper says. “There probably isn’t enough [native] prairie left to protect many endangered native species, so it’s going to require restoration of original or indigenous habitat.”

In addition to the prairie restoration project, Bethel is in possession of two tracts of virgin (never plowed) prairie. One of them, the Sand Prairie Preserve in western Harvey County, came into the college’s possession in February 1965. It has the distinction of being the first project in Kansas to be supported by the Nature Conservancy.

Sand Prairie is an 80-acre tract within a 40-mile strip of land between the Arkansas and Little Arkansas Rivers covered with sand dunes and marshes. The sandy soil and the dunes give it topography, flora and fauna distinct from the surrounding flat loam areas.

Bethel professor emeritus of biology Dwight Platt was instrumental in establishing the Sand Prairie Preserve. He was co-chair of a statewide committee that raised one-third of the cost of the land, with the Nature Conservancy providing a third and Bethel College’s development staff raising the other third.

At the time Bethel acquired Sand Prairie, Platt was quick to credit the late J.H. Doell, head of the college’s biology department for more than 40 years beginning in 1911, with pioneer studies of the sandhills area, including building a collection of sandhills plants.

Platt himself served as research assistant for a field study of snake populations begun in the sandhills in 1959 under the auspices of a National Science Foundation grant to the University of Kansas zoology department. Bethel students have continued tracking those populations to the present day.

South and east in Cowley County, Bethel owns a section of tallgrass prairie called the Broadie Prairie Preserve, named in honor of Wilber and Rhoda Pennington Broadie by their two surviving children, who gave the area to Bethel College in May 1993.

Broadie Prairie is also an 80-acre tract that includes typical tallgrass vegetation and bird and animal life. About half the land has been in the Conservation Reserve Program, which provides an interesting contrast to the unplowed acres. A local farmer manages Broadie Prairie and cuts prairie hay with some proceeds going to the college.

In the late 1980s when Wanda Broadie Alexander wanted to donate her 80 acres, several potential recipients, such as Southwestern College and the Audubon Society, turned her down. However, since the establishment of the National Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in Chase County in 1996, there has been far more interest at the university research level in prairie study and preservation.

Over the last decade or so, Piper, along with several students, has conducted comparative studies of the effects of some environmental change on the vegetation composition on both prairies. In 2005, he and Bethel biology students Danielle Billings and Vanessa Leite published an article in Community Ecology documenting how changes in nitrogen deposits can significantly alter the species composition of sand prairie vegetation

“It’s a wonderful opportunity to have two ‘old-growth’ prairies available for research,” Piper said. “Changes in the makeup of these areas can signal how natural areas may respond to changes in the global environment.”

Piper’s prairie restoration work is also receiving attention in the scientific press. Last month, Piper’s articles “Does the number of species in a seed mix affect the establishment of four tallgrass prairie species? A seven-year study in Kansas” appeared in Ecological Restoration and “Effects of species richness on resident and target species components in a prairie restoration,” coauthored with Bethel students Angela Janzen and Emily Schmidt, appeared in Restoration Ecology.

Earlier this summer, Bethel president Barry Bartel made his first visit to Broadie Prairie (Sand Prairie was on the day’s agenda but was inaccessible due to high water in the Little Arkansas River).

“The prairie research projects bring together two important components of a Bethel education,” Bartel said, “a concern for ecology expressed through environmental studies, and the value of undergraduate research. Professor Piper does a good job of incorporating this distinctive aspect of our geographical context in our curriculum.”

Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Founded in 1887, it is the oldest Mennonite college in North America. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and has been named a Top Tier college by U.S. News & World Report every year since 1998. For more information, see the Bethel web site at

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