JASPER COUNTY, Iowa -- There are only a few small pockets of beauty left across the nation, one of which is in central Iowa. And right now is the best time of year to visit.
Surrounded by land that’s bridled by industry, the Neal Smith Refuge is a snapshot of our history, one that we are finding more and more reasons to reference today. This is land that doesn’t flood. It is cut by streams that are filtered clean by the native plants and their thick roots which are unmolested by the plow.
“I keep saying that we’re about 26 years into a 150-year project,” said deputy wildlife manager, Cheryl Groom.
Groom is the latest to be saddled with the ongoing task of returning these 8,600 acres to its roots.
“Most of the seed was brought in from other remnants -- little pockets of prairie at cemeteries or along railroads,” she said.
The prairie flora was soon followed by native fauna. From the smallest to the largest, all following natural cycles again.
“We’ve had eight calves already, and usually we’ll have an average of around 15 calves in the year,” said Karen Viste-Sparkman, a biologist at the Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge.
It’s a sight that brings Iowans in from all around.
“If you go about 4:30 in the afternoon, quite often the bison are crossing the road,” said Neal Smith, who served in Congress from 1959 until 1995. He is the longest-serving Iowan in the House of Representatives.
This is America’s easternmost federal herd.
“Bison do very well in Iowa. They grow very large, here,” Groom said.
On the perimeter is Sparky, a large bison who was struck by lightning in 2013 and still bears the large scar.
“He’s still around. He’s still doing pretty well. He’s a little on the thin side, but he’s a survivor,” Viste-Sparkman said.
One of the most unique parts of the Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge is a part that most people don’t know about is the 14-acre hillside, which is considered a “prairie remnant.” You can tell by some of the plants that you find here such as Golden Alexander. They are prairie species that could have never found their way here on their own.
“It’s just kind of a reminder of where we came from and what is out there in nature and that we’re part of this, too,” said Viste-Sparkman.
That’s exactly what legendary congressman Neal Smith was thinking as he searched for land for the refuge in the 1980s. He got a call from Iowa Power and Light about a large plot originally reserved for a nuclear plant.
“He said they just had a board meeting and decided to sell that land because they’re not going to use it,” Smith said.
Smith quickly found the funds. He’s a World War II hero, a 36-year member of Congress, an accomplished attorney, and he calls the wildlife refuge one of his crowning achievements.
“I wanted a place that was like native Iowa for school children, 4H kids, scouts -- a place for them to go and see nature,” Smith said.
Now 96 years old, Smith still visits the refuge weekly and delights in the sight of children connecting with it.
“They need to know that there’s a balance of nature and that nature is more powerful than anything else,” he said.
Each new season here is a reminder. Nature doesn’t need faith or luck. It only needs a chance, a little space and some Iowans young and old to believe it deserves both.
The Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge began with 3,600 acres in 1990 and hopes to one day grow to over 11,000 acres.
Admission is free to the public. The refuge and its visitors’ center are open seven days a week.