Whether it’s blanketed in snow or covered with white prairie flowers, a summit near Harrisonville appears to be aptly named.
They call it Snowball Hill, and it’s home to one of the most spectacular unplowed prairies in Missouri. Not only does it contain a rich diversity of plant and animal life, but it is rare for a pristine prairie of that quality to survive so close to a major metropolitan area.
“On a scale of 1 to 10, it’s probably a 12,” said Carla Dods, board chairwoman of the Platte Land Trust.
Two years ago, her organization worked with the Missouri Prairie Foundation to acquire the 22-acre property at a public auction along with 54 acres of nearby farmland that will be reconstructed with prairie plantings. The prairie foundation now owns the property.
The $473,000 purchase preserves the remnant prairie from encroaching development so future generations can experience its beauty.
The purchase loan was paid off early this year and now the Missouri Prairie Foundation has scheduled a dedication at 2 p.m. on Sept. 30, where donors will be thanked for making it happen.
The unplowed prairie likely owes its survival to the same steep topography that made Snowball Hill hospitable to so many kinds of plants. Easily-eroded hillsides aren’t the best for farming, and the soil at the top is shallow and rocky.
However, the previous owners were able to cut the native grasses for hay — putting the prairie land to practical use without destroying the grasses unlike much of Missouri, where other original prairies have vanished.
The state once had more than 15 million acres of prairie before the Europeans arrived, according to the Missouri Prairie Foundation. Fewer than 60,000 acres remain today, including only a few hundred — if that — in the Kansas City region.
“These 22 acres are perhaps the best example of that major ecosystem,” said Bruce Schuette, the Missouri Prairie Foundation’s vice-president of science and management.
The land sustains more than 175 native plant species, he said, “and a whopping 51 of them are considered by ecologists to be species largely restricted to sites with high ecological integrity.”
Forty-six species of butterflies have been identified there and 47 bird species have been seen or heard. Among the more notable birds that depend on open grassland habitats, Schuette said, are the loggerhead shrike, scissor-tailed flycatcher, the dickcissel, and the Eastern meadowlark.
Prairie preservation is extremely important to bird enthusiasts, because grassland birds are experiencing the steepest decline among the species, said Mary Nemecek, conservation chairwoman of Burroughs Audubon of Greater Kansas City.
“We’re losing these ecosystems at an astonishing rate,” she said.
When Snowball Hill went to auction, Nemecek said, Burroughs Audubon emptied its coffers of $15,000 and raised $4,000 more for the Platte Land Trust to cover the required deposit. Burroughs Audubon later sold some land so it could contribute $50,000 this year toward the loan repayment.
“You only get one chance to save a remnant prairie,” she said. “Once it’s plowed under, it’s gone forever.”
The Missouri Prairie Foundation will protect the unplowed prairie by controlling invasive species, removing invading plants and overseeing prescribed fires. A sign acknowledging donors and describing the prairie’s history has been installed, and a low-impact parking lot is planned.
Occasional guided tours are planned, but the prairie is open year-round to people who want to explore it on their own.
The Platte Land Trust has donated more than $100,000 toward the purchase. Part of its continuing support is to help collect seeds from the unplowed prairie so they can be sown on the surrounding acreage.
“Visiting this prairie remnant is like going back in time,” said Carol Davit, executive director of the Missouri Prairie Foundation. “It is part of the natural heritage of all Missourians to enjoy, cherish, learn from, and support.”
Snowball Hill Prairie Dedication
When: 2 p.m., Sept. 30
Where: Snowball Hill Prairie, 19866 E. 275th St. in Cass County
Getting there: From Interstate 49, take exit 157 and turn west on 275th Street. Stop for the sign at the T intersection and turn left onto Brickplant Road. Shortly after the railroad tracks, South Belle Plain Road will be on the left and the turnoff to Snowball Hill Prairie will be on the right.
Details: A guided tour of the prairie will follow donor recognition and remarks. Dress for an outdoor walk.
Future access: All Missouri Prairie Foundation properties, including Snowball Hill, are free and open to the public for hiking, bird watching, and enjoying nature.