Coming Soon: The Prairie Corridor on Haines Branch
by Jesse Starita
Imagine monarch butterflies fluttering under clear blue skies as families pedal through a pristine tallgrass prairie. On one side of the crushed limestone trail, a group of undergraduate students count birds for their environmental restoration course. On the other, a trio of fishermen return from angling at a nearby lake. The family continues pedaling until they reach their destination: an 850-acre prairie oasis where hundreds of bird and plant species dwell alongside historic 19th-century wagon ruts from a shortcut to the Oregon Trail.
This is the vision of the Prairie Corridor on Haines Branch—a 10-mile passageway connecting the Pioneers Park Nature Center, Spring Creek Prairie Audubon Center and Conestoga Lake State Recreation Area, roughly 10 miles southwest of Lincoln.
“We view this as a generational legacy project,” Lincoln Parks & Recreation Department special projects administrator Nicole Fleck-Tooze told the Lincoln Journal Star. “It will be a project that unfolds over time.”
According to Fleck-Tooze, the ambitious 7,800 acre-project is built on three pillars: conservation and habitat development, trail and economic opportunity, and supporting environmental education, outreach and research. The Pioneers Park portion of the trail is already complete and roughly 40 percent of the total land rights have been secured. Overall, two-thirds of the Prairie Corridor has been conserved through land purchases and easements, all acquired through a voluntary, incentive-based approach.
A vision this big requires a lot of time and money. With four miles of trail completed and $7 million dollars raised, there’s yet another $15 million dollars and 10 miles of trail to fully consummate the vision. Fortunately, working together to cherish and conserve natural resources is in Lincoln’s DNA.
True to form, financial and in-kind support have come from a cross-section of our community. Starting in 2013, the project’s first year, the Nebraska Environmental Trust (NET) provided foundational funding through multi-year grants. Since then, a number of other core partners have meshed, including: Lincoln Parks & Recreation, Spring Creek Prairie Audubon Center, Lancaster County, Lincoln Parks Foundation, Lower Platte South Natural Resources District, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, and Nebraska’s School of Natural Resources. Furthermore, over 30 individuals, agencies and organizations have lent support through matching funds and in-kind services.
Individual donors and volunteers are also pivotal. A Prairie Corridor Cabinet composed of 19 community leaders includes business executives, policy makers, and conservationists.
Conservation and Habitat Development
At one time, tallgrass prairies covered 142 million acres, or about 40 percent of the United States. Today, there is but one percent left—meaning it’s one of the rarest and most endangered ecosystems in the world.
Great Plains photographer Michael Forsberg co-chairs the project’s cabinet. He emphasizes Lincoln’s proximity to an exceedingly rare gem.
“One hundred fifty years ago, there were about 40 million acres of tallgrass prairie,” said Forsberg. “Today, roughly 98 percent is gone, including here in Nebraska. But part of what remains are these rare treasure boxes right here on the periphery of Lincoln.”
The project has also inspired acts of philanthropy. Judy and Tim Stiefel spent 50 years renting, farming and living on land within the Corridor. After retiring a couple years ago, they wanted a buyer who would care for the land as they had. So when the time came, they sold 100 acres to the city of Lincoln and donated a 13-acre Lettuce Patch to the Lower Platte South NRD.
“We loved this land,” Judy Stiefel told the Lincoln Journal Star.
Dedicated last year, the Stiefel-Johnson Trailhead is located near SW 84th Street and West Old Cheney Road and features a re-established prairie.
Thousands of people annually visit the Pioneers Park Nature Center and Spring Creek Prairie Audubon Center. For example, each fall every Lincoln Public Schools fourth grader spends a day in the prairie through the Prairie Immersion Program. This provides youth with hands-on outdoor learning, everything from pulling a model travois to journaling about the prairie’s sights and sounds.
This outdoor education spans many ages and degrees. Ethan Freese recently graduated from UNL with a master’s degree in applied science. For his final project, Freese spent hundreds of hours in the Corridor creating an immersive story map through photos, videos and audio (go.unl.edu/45z6). He said the constantly changing ecosystem is well-suited for learning.
“The prairie is constantly changing from year to year, season to season, and day to day. There’s always something new to discover no matter how much time you spend there.”
While Lincolnites have long prized outdoor recreation, the global pandemic has reconnected many residents with nature. The Pioneers Park Nature Center and Spring Creek Prairie Audubon Center—the project’s bookends—are two such sanctuaries where people restore themselves through nature. According to Prairie Corridor Cabinet Member and Lincoln City Councilwoman Sändra Washington, this is true of both residents and visitors of Lincoln.
“When people visit places, they want to connect in real ways—not just with local businesses and local food, but also local natural places,” Washington told L Magazine. “The Prairie Corridor project gives us a chance to invite people to connect with what is special here, and that’s the prairie.”
In business terms, the project is also fodder for employers recruiting prospective employees. The trail is another arrow in the quiver for firms competing for talent and resources from cities like Kansas City, Minneapolis and Denver. Moreover, the trail is a mere 10 minutes from Interstate 80.
Like the Interstate Highway System, the Prairie Corridor will, one day, connect people and places through its bold vision that spans generations.