Prairie preservationists mourn loss of virgin prairie at Google data center site

They maintain that the city ‘dropped the ball’ in following steps to preserve such rare remnants

By: - September 6, 2022 5:00 am
prairie in spring

A prairie in spring brings a diversity of grasses and flowering plants. (Courtesy of Tom Bragg)

“Anybody can love the mountains, but it takes a soul to love the prairie.” Willa Cather

OMAHA — A prairie in bloom has a special attraction for biologists like Tom Bragg and Glenn Pollock.

Both can tell stories of being chased off a small, private plot of virgin prairie they had individually spied while driving along State Street in northwest Omaha.

“The guy who owned it was very grumpy, and he’d run people off,” said Pollock, a retired Omaha medical technician who has helped manage prairie plots in the metro area for 30 years. 

But these days, these two prairie proponents are in mourning.

Google site
A pile of dirt (in the background) is all that remains of a small plot of virgin prairie in northwest Omaha, along State Street just west of Nebraska Highway 133.
(Courtesy Tom Bragg)

That 5-acre prairie plot along State Street, which had been harvested for its hay for decades, was bulldozed away about a year ago as part of Google’s plan to build a $750 million data center just west of Nebraska Highway 133.

Bragg, a University of Nebraska at Omaha professor who specializes in prairie ecosystems and manages UNO’s 525-acre Glacier Creek Preserve, said there’s a special kind of sadness when one of Nebraska’s few remaining, never-plowed prairies is lost.

Tallgrass prairie covered 170 million acres

Tallgrass prairies once covered 170 million acres of the Great Plains, including most of eastern Nebraska. But farming and development have taken out an estimated 98% to 99% of it, leaving only small remnants in what was an ocean of grass.

In the Omaha area, only about eight virgin prairie plots remain, compared to about 22 in 1980, said Bragg and Pollock.

Prairies, Pollock said, are “just flat-out beautiful.”

“It’s part of our natural history, our heritage,” he said. “We’re just throwing away the pieces.”

“It’s gone,” Bragg said of the State Street prairie. “It was not in the best spot (near development sites). It was not too surprising that someone did it in.”

But what most disappoints Bragg and Pollock is that the City of Omaha has guidelines to protect virgin prairie and, in this case, those guidelines weren’t followed.

Master plan calls for protection

The City of Omaha’s Master Plan calls for “effective measures” to protect “natural features” from destruction, features such as ravines, wetlands, Missouri River bluffs and prairies.

The plan, more of a guideline than an edict, calls for mitigation if a woodland, wetland or virgin prairie is to be removed by development. In the case of virgin prairie, two acres of such prairie should be replaced for every acre removed.

But Eric Englund, Omaha’s assistant city planner, said the existence of a native prairie never came up during discussions in which he was present over the Google project, which was a well-kept secret until it was announced in April by Mayor Stothert and other officials.

The prairie, Englund said, was identified on a map kept by the City Parks Department. But for some reason, it did not come up, he said, during the approval process of the Google project.

‘Don’t know if it was missed’

“I don’t know if it was missed, or if it was agreed that mitigation of the prairie was not necessary,” he said.

While mitigation for removal of wetlands and trees is regularly done as part of development agreements, Englund said this is the first time in his 16 years with the city that a virgin prairie was involved.

He said he has had some brief conversations with representatives of Google about the loss of the prairie plot, but at this point, after the city has already approved the development plan, there is no intention of requiring the company to replace it.

“If they want to recreate some prairie, that’s up to them,” Englund said.

“The city dropped the ball,” Pollock said.

Both Pollack and Bragg don’t exactly blame Google for the destruction, since they may not have been aware they they were scraping away virgin prairie.

But they are frustrated that saving the prairie wasn’t considered, and wonder why the giant tech company, which touts itself as using carbon-free energy and seeking a sustainable future, didn’t do its own inventory of the land it purchased — before the bulldozers moved in.

“They should have had a biologist go to look at a site to see what they bought,” Pollock said. 

Google working with ‘local partners’

When emailed several questions and asked to comment, Google spokesman Devon Smiley responded with one sentence: “We have been working closely with our local partners in Omaha to determine a suitable plan.”

Audubon Prairie
The Audubon Prairie, near 72nd Street and McKinley Road in Omaha, is a mix of native and restored prairie. (Courtesy of Glenn Pollock)

Both Bragg and Pollock have been involved in saving prairie plots elsewhere in the metro area.

Bragg worked with the city to preserve one virgin prairie, the Bauermeister Prairie at Zorinsky Lake. He also worked on the Bluestem Prairie Preserve near 168th and Blondo Streets, which has portions of that were virgin prairie.

Bragg has also worked to transform farmland back into prairie at UNO’s Glacier Creek Preserve, at 144th and State Streets, which features a restored barn that hosts concerts, art shows and meetings.

Pollock helps manage several prairie areas, including the Audubon Prairie, near 72nd Street and McKinley Road, of which is half virgin prairie. He also helps manage virgin prairie at the Cuming City Cemetery near Blair and at Vincent Bluff State Preserve in Council Bluffs.

Can learn from prairie

We can learn a lot about surviving drought and dry weather from prairie plants, he said. The deep-rooted prairie plants are the main reason Nebraska has such rich soils, he added.

Pollock said he’s not interested in requiring Google to mitigate the loss of the prairie, although something similar occurred voluntarily in the past.

When Google first built a data center in Council Bluffs 15 years ago, workers removed dirt from the sensitive Loess Hills bluffs nearby, he said, which raised concerns from conservationists.

Not much happened until a $20,000 check arrived in the mailbox of one of those who protested, Pollock said, written out to the Loess Hills Preservation Society.

The money, he said, was a big help in restoring and cleaning up the site of the Vincent Bluff Preserve.

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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska Legislature and Nebraska state government for decades. He started his career reporting for the Omaha Sun and later, editing the Papillion Times group in suburban Omaha. He joined the Lincoln Journal-Star as a sports enterprise reporter, and then a roving reporter covering southeast Nebraska. In 1990, he was hired by the Omaha World-Herald as a legislative reporter. Later, for 15 years, he roamed the state covering all kinds of news and feature stories. In the past decade, he served as chief of the Lincoln Bureau and enterprise reporter. Paul has won awards for reporting from Great Plains Journalism, the Associated Press, Nebraska Newspaper Association and Suburban Newspapers of America. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation, a member of the Nebraska Hop Growers and a volunteer caretaker of Irvingdale Park in Lincoln.

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