The only sounds on this hot, humid September day are the insects and a crow in the distance as Dixie Smith, chair of the Department of Biology at Pittsburg State University, plods through the tangled mass of bluestem, bright azure asters, sunflowers, goldenrod and scores of other native grasses in the O’Malley Prairies just northeast of Cherokee.

Dixie Smith

Dixie Smith

The university has managed the prairies for a number of years under an informal agreement, but in 2016 received it as a gift from the descendants of Mary Elizabeth O’Malley and her brother, Charles David O’Malley.

These two small patches of undisturbed earth, totaling just under 12 acres, are a tiny remnant of the vast prairie that settlers first encountered when they came to what is now Kansas. When she walks through the prairie, Smith imagines what the settlers thought when they first encountered this sea of grass.

“They were farmers,” Smith said. “They saw this (the lush native grasses) and they thought, ‘this is incredibly productive soil!’ And it still is.”

That soil and its importance to both the history and the future of the region are never far from Smith’s thoughts.

“I suppose I could live anywhere,” said Smith, brushing aside a five-foot-tall clump of bluestem. “So why (southeast Kansas)? … What is it that’s so special about this area? It’s the soil!”

As Kansas and the Great Plains became the nation’s breadbasket, producing food for a hungry nation, the native prairie lands rapidly disappeared. Today, outside of a few notable exceptions, the natural prairie exists only in small plots like the O’Malley Prairies.

In 1991, Charles David O’Malley and former Biology Department chair Jim Triplett made an informal agreement that allowed PSU to manage the two tracts of undisturbed land, located at the intersection of South 170th Street and East 510th Avenue. Since then, PSU biology students have used the land as an outdoor research lab, taking core samples of the soil and studying the plants and insects that thrive in that environment.

O'Malley prairie

Smith said the transfer of title for the O’Malley Prairie won’t change the way the university uses the land. Students will continue to do research at the prairie and compare it to the adjacent Monahan Outdoor Education Center.

“Because the O’Malley and Monahan properties are adjacent to each other, it is perfect for students to compare and contrast native, undisturbed prairie with partially reclaimed land that has been mined,” Smith said.

The Monahan Outdoor Education Center is a 153-acre site that was donated to PSU in 1988 by the Reals family of Wichita in memory of Mrs. Reals’ father, Francis Monahan. One of the major features of the Monahan property is an 80-acre grassland that sits on top of a pile of coal mining refuse. Reclamation of the site began in 1984.

“It’s really dramatic when students compare core samples of the soil in the O’Malley Prairie and the Monahan site,” Smith said. “They can see clearly the differences between the undisturbed grassland and the partially reclaimed mined land.”

For more information about the PSU Department of Biology, visit their website at www.pittstate.edu/biology.

For information about the properties that make up the Southeast Kansas Biological Station, visit pittstate.edu/biostation