About My Site: Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge

By Ayden Reyes

A view of the visitor center from a walking trail.

Although I’m only a month into my internship, it’s easy to see why Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge is a special place. This urban refuge serves the Des Moines area as a reminder of what the land we live on looked like prior to European colonization. Visitors can glimpse into the past, seeing historic tallgrass prairie, with bison roaming as they did before their population declined. 

The land that Neal Smith NWR lies on was originally agricultural land that was proposed to be the site of a nuclear power plant, but after land prices rose, the deal fell through. Late congressman Neal Smith had a different idea for the land parcel; he envisioned a complete reconstruction of a tallgrass prairie ecosystem from agricultural fields. At the time, it was a novel project.

Because of the dedication of the refuge staff and volunteers, the refuge stands today as a flagship tallgrass prairie reconstruction. With 6,000 acres of wildlife habitat and a 40,000 square foot visitor center, refuge staff concentrate their efforts on public education and outreach; such was the vision of Neal Smith. Numerous community events are held every year, including Pedal the Prairie, a cycling event, and Monarch Madness, a pollinator event, just to name a couple. 

The refuge offers great opportunities for wildlife watching as well. Visitors can take an auto-tour that drives through the 800 acre bison and elk enclosure, and enjoy excellent birding on the walking trails; all just 20 miles from a major city. Neal Smith NWR has already garnered a special place in my heart, and the spring wildflowers haven’t even bloomed yet.

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